Women of the Otherworld #9.5: Men of the Otherworld

By now we’re all well acquainted with the women of the Otherworld. But what about that men? What untold tales have they been getting involved in off-screen? Here comes the short story anthology to answer all your questions: it’s Men of the Otherworld, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

As a curious six-year-old, Clayton didn’t resist the bite—he asked for it. But surviving as a lone child-werewolf was more than he could manage—until Jeremy came along and taught him how to straddle the human-werewolf worlds, gave him a home…and introduced him to the Pack. So begins this volume, featuring three of the members of the American Pack—a hierarchical founding family where bloodlines mean everything and each day presents a new, thrilling, and often deadly challenge. For as Clayton grows from a wild child to a clever teen who tests his beloved mentor at every turn, he must learn not only to control his animal instincts but to navigate Pack politics—including showing his brutal archnemesis, Malcolm, who the real Alpha is…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Remember when I reviewed A City Dreaming and said that the “a novel” subtitle was a lie because it was actually a short story collection? Men of the Otherworld is the opposite: it subtitles itself as “a collection of Otherworld tales”, but the bulk of it is in fact a single story about Clay’s youth. It covers a large period of his early life: how he was bitten by a werewolf, how he was adopted by Jeremy, and his experiences at school. This is all good information to have, as Clay was pretty enigmatic when he was introduced in Bitten: we were told he had all this history with Elena which ultimately made her choose him over her fiancé, but it was left pretty vague as to what. Men of the Otherworld fills in a lot of important gaps in his backstory and gives me a much better sense of who Clay was when he met Elena. Unfortunately, this book comes to an end before his first meeting with her, so I still don’t have a good idea of their early relationship.

Also, the ending to the Malcolm subplot is a major anticlimax. I suppose it’s supposed to be poignant that they never got the final confrontation they seemed to be building towards and that Malcolm just ending up dying in some random fight against some random guy who himself died in another random fight without any involvement from the heroes; but it’s not exactly dramatically satisfying closure to that whole arc. For the book’s main antagonist to just sort of give up and wander off to die is questionable storytelling.

The only parts not about Clay are the bookends, which reveal the secret of Jeremy’s Kogitsune heritage. Useful information to know; but I can’t forgive the book for getting my hopes up by having Jeremy initially mistake one of the fox maidens for Zoe Takano. Zoe, if you might recall, is a lesbian vampire jewel thief who made only a brief cameo in the Women of the Otherworld series; a potentially fascinating character who I hoped would return for more stories or even her own book. It is a desire I have thus far been disappointed in. Then Men of the Otherworld mentioned her name, I thought the time had finally come for her reappearance… only for it to be a fake-out. Boo.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Twenty-Sided Sorceress #1-4: Level Grind

If you want to beat the final boss, you’ve got to level grind. Sometimes that means farming slimes, and sometimes it means eating the hearts of your enemies. Let’s fire some magic missiles at the darkness and illuminate Level Grind, by Annie Bellet.

Synopsis:

Gamer. Nerd. Sorceress.

Jade Crow lives a quiet life running her comic book and game store in Wylde, Idaho, hiding from a powerful sorcerer who wants to eat her heart and take her powers—her ex-boyfriend Samir. Yet when dark powers threaten her friends’ lives, Jade must save them by using magic. But as soon as she does, her nemesis will find her and she won’t be able to stand up against him when he comes.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The best thing about Level Grind is undoubtably the cast of characters. I immediately came to love Jade Crow, a geeky sorceress with massive power but little training who bases her spellcasting on what she’s read in Dungeons & Dragons manuals. Her circle of friends, a diverse assortment of supernatural beings, are likewise endearing. The references and in-jokes to nerd culture fly fast and furious – “Go for the eyes, Boo!”, “Curse your sudden but inevitably betrayal!” – and each one gave me a warm glow of pleasure.

The plot is good, too – or plots, I should say. Level Grind is a collection of the first four books of The Twenty-Sided Sorceress series, though they’re brief enough that I view them more as short stories than stand-alone novels. Though the stories are tied together by the looming threat of Jade’s heart-eating ex-boyfriend Samir and her need to level grind like mad so she can be strong enough to battle him when he finally comes for her, each had its own independent story arc and antagonist.

In Justice Calling, Jade has to stop a warlock who’s been draining the life from shapeshifters to power his magic. In Murder of Crows, a vengeful ghost threatens an isolated Native American community. In Pack of Lies, an assassin targets Jade while war threatens to erupt between the local werewolf packs. And in Hunting Season, two of Samir’s apprentices start stirring up trouble using the severed head of Balor Birugderc.

I have to give the writing credit. In Pack of Lies, I rolled my eyes when Jade lost her magical knife at an inconvenient moment. But then, in Hunting Season, she learns that it is one of a pair and the enchantment on it makes it try to get lost so it can find its way to its other half – what I thought was a lazy writing convenience was actually foreshadowing. Bravo. There are a lot of small moments like that which end up coming back in a significant way, such as Jade noting the similarity of Justice necklaces to cheap jewelry sold at local tourist traps. There’s no telling how many more such parts are foreshadowing for the latter half of the series, but it seems likely it’s building up to a reveal about dragons.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that the final story isn’t a climax. The whole narrative arc of the book is about Jade building up to inevitably battle Samir; but when the book ends, he still hasn’t appeared. I suppose that’s an inevitable consequence of splitting the series across two books instead of collecting all the books in a single omnibus volume. Honestly, the individual stories are short enough that I think they’d all fit.

Still, based on the merit of the content which it does include, I can give Level Grind a big thumbs-up.

Final Rating: 4/5

Major Ariane Kedros #3: Pathfinder

Vengeance is forever, but all trilogies must come to an end. So arrives the final book in the Major Ariane Kedros series. Let’s pave a trail into Pathfinder, by Laura E. Reeve.

Synopsis:

Wars may end. But vengeance is forever.

Reserve Major Ariane Kedros needs a shot at redemption-and the mysterious aliens known as the Minoans need an extraordinary human pilot with a rejuv-stimulated metabolism like Ariane for a dangerous expedition to a distant solar system. But there’s a catch. The Minoans have to implant their technology in Ariane’s body, and it might not be removable. Ariane is willing, but as she begins the perilous journey, there is an old enemy hiding within the exploration team who is determined to see them fail…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

And so we come to the final installment of the Major Ariane Kedros trilogy. This is where all the loose threads from the first two books need to be tied up. Anything that isn’t answered here, isn’t going to be answered at all. So, what I want is to get straight to the stuff about the Minoans and the Builders. Unfortunately, before getting to the exploration teased in the synopsis, the book decides to waste a bunch of time detailing the trial for the terrorists from Vigilante.

What is the point of this? We know that the accused are guilty – we read all about their heinous deeds in the second book. The witnesses can’t tell us anything we didn’t already see for ourselves. It’s not like there are going to be any shocking revelations; you can’t even count the fact that Abram had the backing of one of the Terran Overlords, since it was already hinted in the previous book that he had external support. The novel itself even seems to realize how pointless this plot is, since it completely forgets about it halfway through – it doesn’t even bother including the outcome. After all that build-up, you’d think we’d get to hear the verdict before moving on? Though I really shouldn’t complain; pages are running out, and the sooner we get away from this pointlessness, the better. At least we stick around long enough to see that slimy weasel Tahir get what he had coming to him.

Once the trial plot fades into rightful oblivion, the real plot comes to the fore; and to no one’s surprise, it revolves around more political intrigue and infighting among the Terrans. I’ve made peace with the fact that these treason and subterfuge stories are where the series’ true interest lies. I mean, personally I’d prefer if the books focused more on exploring the ruins of Builder civilization of exploring the true nature of the Minoans; but this isn’t a Jack McDevitt novel, so it isn’t about that. Spy stories can be fun, too. I mean, I’m glad that Maria’s plotline wasn’t completely dropped, with Ariane taking over as her contact now that Joyce is incapacitated.

The book is ultimately satisfying in that it provides conclusions to the major plotlines which have been running throughout the books. Maria finally completes her defection from Terra to the Consortium, Ariane is finally forced to confront her substance abuse problem, Cipher is… um…

Hey, what about Cipher? There’s been this whole recurring thing in both this book and the previous one about how her body was never found after an explosion which supposedly killed her, after she already once faked her death in precisely the same manner. Characters are constantly meeting in secret and whispering about how there’s still no news on Cipher, and how they need to keep this information from Ariane. We’re told that Leukos is stonewalling the investigation, preventing a proper search of the site of Cipher’s supposed death. Everything is obviously building up to Cipher returning for revenge. And then the final villains turns out to be… Nathan? That one guy who was a minor lackey to Parmet in the first book and didn’t appear at all in the second? Um… okay, sure, why not.

But anyway, the rest of the conclusions to the various plotlines were satisfying. It’s a perfectly fine novel in a perfectly fine trilogy.

Final Rating: 3/5

Wild Cards #4: Aces Abroad

Place your bets, folks: we’re returning to the Wild Cards series, and the deck is stacked with Aces. Let’s shuffle up Aces Abroad, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

What would our world be like if superhuman heroes and villains had been real flesh-and-blood men and women who lived through the 20th century’s most turbulent history? In Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad, a fact-finding mission seeks the truth about how Wild Cards are treated in other nations. From the jungles of Haiti to the Great Wall of China and behind the Iron Curtain, the Wild Cards team investigates the fate of their fellow Aces and Jokers everywhere.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With the Astronomer, overarching villain of the first three novels, finally having been dispatched, Aces Abroad is burdened with the responsibility of setting up new arc villains for the coming storylines. Unfortunately, it gets so wrapped up in this that it forgets to have any actual substance of its own. In pretty much every aspect, Aces Abroad is burdened with serious problems.

First, there’s the premise. A high-profile group of Aces is going on a world tour to draw attention to Joker issues in the nations they visit. One would expect this to be an opportunity to see many different exotic locales and the differing responses they have had to the Wild Card issues. But everywhere the group goes is the same: Aces are valued for government work, Jokers are despised. The text might tell us that we’ve gone to Haiti or Mexico or the Middle East, but the scenes of Jokers being abused by government authority are interchangeable.

The world tour aspect of the story gives rise to another problem: there’s no narrative cohesion. With stories set in Jokertown, it’s possible to build up a big cast of recurring characters who can constantly cross paths with each other, teaming up and getting into feuds and generally interacting with one another. With the world tour, we go to a country, meet a bunch of new characters, and then leave that country never to see them again. It’s hard to get invested in a new character who lives in Haiti when you know every other character in the series is heading right back to New York as soon as this book ends.

But, hey, the Messenger in Black is pretty cool. He’s not likely to be heading to New York any time soon, but I’m sure it won’t take long for the series to return to the new Aztec nation and feature him in another story. Certainly less than, say, sixteen entire books (just to pick a number purely at random). I will be waiting with bated breath for his introduction to the roster of Wild Cards characters to pay dividends.

Now, let’s get down to the matter of villains. Because each stop in a new country is effectively a separate story, each has to have its own villain. That in itself is not a problem – not every villain has to be super-compelling or super-memorable, just so long as they drive the story along. The Hero Twins’ plot works just fine even though there’s not a single named villain, since the nature of their arc makes generic oppressive government stormtroopers suitable as antagonists. But, here’s the problem: since the book is obsessed with establishing a new major multi-arc villain to replace the Astronomer, it doesn’t want to actually kill any of these new villains – in fact, it wants them to end their stories ascendant, so they can pose a recurring threat to the protagonists in the future. And that would be fine – for one villain. But if every single story introduces a new villain, and each story ends with the villain escaping justice and growing in power… well, then it doesn’t seem that the heroes actually accomplished anything, now does it?

Seriously, let’s look at the villains in this book. Not counting generic oppressive government stormtroopers, the book introduces three new villains in Nur al-Allah, Ti Malice, and Mack the Knife; plus, it features appearances by two recurring ones in Puppetman and Kien. And what resolution or closure do we reach? Kien suffers defeat in the sense that this particular plot of his was foiled; but since he was acting by proxy while personally remaining safely back in New York, there was never any chance of him actually getting taking down. Puppetman succeeds in gaining many new powerful and influential puppets; plus, he uses his mind control to “seduce” (rape) the sister of a woman he previously murdered. That, by the way, was a very gross plotline I could have done without reading, thank you very much. Mack the Knife gets recruited by Puppetman and given a new position as his personal assassin. Ti Malice escapes the squalid hell-hole he was hiding in and gets carried to New York. Do you call that resolution? Do you call that closure? Because I sure don’t. The only one the heroes actually manage to beat is the Nur al-Allah.

Well, at least the Nur was taken care of. I mean, technically Puppetman felt that he hadn’t died yet as they ran away, but come on: Sayyid was crushed to mush by Hiram, and the Nur got a knife in the throat. They’ve been defeated; dead, done, over with. You introduce a new recurring villain by making him look strong – hence the problem of all the villains in this book who don’t get beaten – not by slitting his throat. And if the Nur somehow managed to survive his neck-hacking, that would mean that not a single villain from this book is defeated; that nothing whatsoever was accomplished and the entire thing was nothing but a huge waste of time. Really, the worst possible thing for the Wild Cards series to do would be to completely forget about events going on in the Middle East, ignore everything happening there for the longest time, and then suddenly out of nowhere bring the Nur back and act as if he’d never gone anywhere and had totally been active and villainous the entire time, just slightly off-screen and without any of the other characters doing anything about it. That would just be incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that, because the Nur is dead and will never be seen again.

NEVER. SEEN. AGAIN.

Ah, but when listing the villains of this novel, I omitted one. (Okay, two; but I’m choosing to ignore the story with Murga-muggai because it’s so weird that doesn’t even feel like a proper Wild Cards story. Did you know that Neil Gaiman originally pitched Dream from The Sandman as a Wild Cards character but George R. R. Martin turned him down? It seems someone decided that whoops, that was a mistake; but it’s too late to get Gaiman now, so let’s just poorly imitate him). I left this one character out because he has not, as yet, been revealed to be a villain; indeed, one could argue that he has not yet technically become a villain at this point in the story. Nevertheless, since this is the book which introduces him, no review could be complete without bringing him up. So, here goes:

Blaise Andrieux. What a little shit.

Seriously. I don’t think we’re supposed to hate him at this point; if anything, we’re supposed to go all misty-eyed at Dr. Tachyon discovering he has a grandson and having an emotional reunion with the family on Earth he never knew he had. But I do hate Blaise; hated him from his very first appearance. Since when has any series ever introducing a previously-unknown relative of one of the main characters, a precocious child possessed of amazing gifts, ever turned out to be a good thing? I mean, remember all the hate Dawn got from fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And she, unlike Blaise Andrieux, had the advantage of not being an annoying little shit. By season seven, she had actually become something approaching likeable; whereas Blaise just becomes more grating and annoying each time he appears. Personally, for some reason, whenever I try to picture Blaise in my mind, I always see him looking exactly like Wesley Crusher.

Now, I am very-spoiler averse. I like to go into series without any foreknowledge of where they might go. But it did not take very many Blaise stories at all before I abandoned my principles and hopped on to the Wild Cards wiki, as I could not bear to keep reading about him and had decided to skip every chapter where he was mentioned unless reassured that he ended up meeting an appropriately gruesome fate. He was seriously that annoying.

shut-up-wesley

But enough about the myriad things in this book which I hated. Did it have any redeeming values, any saving graces? Was there any gold among the dross, any pearls before the swine? Well, yes; I must confess that it was not entirely without merit. The best stories were, unsurprisingly, those which were actually written to work as stand-alone stories rather than to serve as launching pads for future villains. In particular, my favorite was “Warts and All”, which focuses on Troll getting into trouble when Fantasy tries to trick him into doing a dirty job for her through a combination of seduction and bald-faced lies. It’s fast-paced, funny, witty, has an exciting fight scene, ends satisfactorily, and is just an all-around fine Wild Cards story. “The Teardrop of India” also has much to recommend it; it is perhaps not quite up to the standards of “Warts and All”, but is more important to the storyline in that it introduces Jayewardene and has Dr. Tachyon cure the shapeshifter mode-lock of Jeremiah Strauss, the former Projectionist and future Mr. Nobody. It’s also one of the few Wild Cards stories to feature the criminally underutilized Radha, the Ace known as Flying Elephant Girl. “Legends”, about the secret history of Aces in the KGB and GRU, is also a pretty good read.

So, yeah, Aces Abroad wasn’t all bad. Just mostly bad. I can recommend a few specific stories from the book, but not the book as a whole.

Final Rating: 2/5

Major Ariane Kedros #2: Vigilante

So you’ve taken over a building, sealing all the exits and taking everyone inside hostage, and it seems nothing can stop your evil plan now. But then, next thing you know, there’s someone crawling through the air ducts, killing your minions and shouting “Yippee-ki-yay!”. Vigilantes, am I right? We now return to the Major Ariane Kedros trilogy with Vigilante, by Laura E. Reeve.

Synopsis:

Amidst an uneasy peace between the Autonomists and the Terrans, Major Ariane Kedros and her partner, Matthew Journey, have discovered alien ruins on a remote planet – ruins that bear evidence to an ancient and highly advanced technology. But their discovery has drawn the interest of high stakes players from every corner of the universe – including that of the rogue leader of a fringe Terran sect. Ari must find a way to stop him, before they all become ancient history…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

When we last left off the Major Ariane Kedros trilogy, Ariane had discovered the ruins of a previously unknown alien civilization, and news was about to arrive regarding the effects of the Temporal Distortion weapon deployed against Ura-Guinn during the war 15 years ago. Excited to follow up with those plot lines? Too bad, because that’s not what this book is about. Rather, the whole the thing is dedicated to a cult of crazy misogynists stealing a TD warhead and the protagonists having to stop them. It’s Die Hard in SPACE! …No, that would be giving it too much credit. In Die Hard, Bruce Willis is sneaking around waging guerrilla warfare against the terrorists, whereas here Ariane gets captured right away and spends pretty much the whole book in captivity doing nothing. Let’s see: terrorists, weapon of mass destruction, misogyny… it’s True Lies in SPACE! And if you can say one thing about True Lies, it’s that… it wasn’t Arnold’s worst movie ever?

To be fair, there was nothing really wrong with the plot of the book. Terrorist cult steals a weapon of mass destruction and the protagonists have to stop them – perfectly fine hook. My main issue is, for a book in the Major Ariane Kedros trilogy, Major Ariane Kedros didn’t really do very much. It was Sergeant Joyce and Maria who were actually sneaking around fighting terrorists while Ariane languished in a prison cell. I mean, the title of the book is Vigilante; and what with the picture on the cover of Ariane firing a big gun and the subtitle “a Major Ariane Kedros novel”, you’d think that it would refer to Ariane. But the only time the word comes up in the novel is when the antagonist Abram says “I have to deal with a minor outbreak of vigilantism on Beta Primos”, and he’s not talking about Ariane – he’s talking about Joyce and Maria. I would have appreciated Ariane getting a bit more of a role in her own novel, is what I’m saying.

Alright, alright, enough with the complaining; onto the stuff I liked. I liked the bit at the beginning with Ariane taking the first steps to work out her addiction issues. I liked the Muse 3 AI developing further as a character. I liked Matt and David Ray giving us our first look at the inside of a Minoan spacecraft. I liked the subplot about Maria trying to defect from Terra to the Consortium. I liked the idle speculation about Boltzmann brains. I liked pretty much everything except the main plot, because reading about Ariane doing nothing was boring. Oh, and also except for the sections focused on Tahir. Because Ariane was boring, but Tahir was actively repugnant. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him because he’s “less bad” than the other terrorists? But really, he’s totally fine with using the TD weapon to kill everyone in the system; the only part he has a problem with is becoming a martyr to the cause instead of saving his own greasy skin. So no, I wasn’t really feeling it in his sections. …And somehow talking about the stuff I liked has segued right back into my problems with the book.

“You bastards think mourning is women’s work? Wait and see what justice can be, when served by a woman.”
– Major Ariane Kedros, Chapter 12

A very badass boast; which would carry more weight if Ariane actually had delivered justice, instead of leaving that actual work to Sergeant Joyce and his band of vigilantes, and the Minoans and their warriors, and the rescue force lead by Colonel Edones, and pretty much every other non-terrorist character in the book.

Well, I may have my complaints; but really, the book was fine–

…Hey, whatever did happen with Maria? She pretty much disappeared from the narrative after she and Joyce parted ways in the Command Post. I think there’s a brief one-sentence mention in chapter 24 confirming she’s among the survivors once everything’s over, but what about her plan to defect? Is anything going to come of that? Can a character get some subplot resolution over here?

Anyway! As I was saying, I may have my complaints; but really, the book was mostly fine. An enjoyable enough read, despite its problems. Decent. Adequate. Basically okay. It had enough good stuff to outweigh the bad, at any rate. But seriously: I’m hoping for better from the third novel in the trilogy.

Final Rating: 3/5

Quasing #1: The Lives of Tao

Having been introduced to the Quasing series by The Rise of Io, it’s time to go back to where it all began and tackle this series chronologically. Let’s relive The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu.

Synopsis:

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn’t. He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes. Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I like to read book series in order. It makes more sense to start on book 1 than on book 5, right? That’s why I was frustrated to learn that I inadvertently read the fifth book of the Quasing series, The Rise of Io, first. In retrospect, though, perhaps that was actually a good thing. Because if I’d started with The Lives of Tao, I’m not sure I’d have developed an interest in the series. The fact is, The Rise of Io is a far superior book.

One of the main problems is the main character, Roen. Whereas Ella Patel was instantly likeable – savvy, independent, strong-willed – Roen is a whiner, a complainer, a wimp. I know the story is supposed to be about Tao whipping him into shape; but up until that actually happens, he’s real unpleasant to hang around with. I mean, Ella did have her faults, but at least she was an interesting character to read about: always up and about, getting into mischief. Roen is just a sad-sack. Furthermore, unlike Io, who was extremely unaccomplished for an ancient alien life-form, Tao is a great and wise empire builder, one of the most respected and accomplished of the Quasing. Meaning, whereas Ella and Io formed a balanced duo with each having their faults, Tao completely overshadows Roen. You know that Mitchell & Webb short about the superhero team Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit, one of whom can summon a horde of invincible celestial super-beings at will and the other of whom is somewhat skillful at bike-riding? It’s kind of like that.

The plot also feels much slower-paced. Whereas Ella is thrust straight into the thick of things by inadvertently getting involved in a plot involving a defector betraying the Prophus to the Genjix right away, nothing much is going on when Roen joins with Tao. Ella gets caught up in action above her level right from the beginning because she’s stuck in the midst of the turmoil without time for a slow and gentle adjustment period; Roen has plenty of time for a slow and gentle adjustment period. Slow, gentle, and boring. Thrill at the pulse-pounding stakeout scenes where Roen sits in a van for two days watching a mailbox! It should be noted that The Lives of Tao also features the plot point of a Prophus defecting to the Genjix; but it completely fails at building up suspense and tension the way The Rise of Io does. That’s because in The Rise of Io, while it’s established early on that there is a mole, the identity of the traitor is kept a mystery and only revealed halfway through the book as a big twist. In The Lives of Tao, the identity of the traitor is revealed in the very first chapter. There’s no surprise reveal; he just openly becomes another one of the bad guys.

Actually, this isn’t really a problem I had with the book, but let’s just take a moment here to talk about how both of the Quasing books I’ve read so far involve a Prophus defecting to the Genjix. I find it kind of funny that while the Prophus are the group who like humanity and want to preserve us and the Genjix are the group which is okay with eliminating humanity to achieve their goals, for some reason the Genjix treat their human agents better than the Prophus do. In The Rise of Io, Ella complains about how small of a stipend the Prophus were paying her, and now this one opens with Marc betraying the Prophus for the Genjix because they offered him much better compensation. One of Roen’s few complaints which is actually valid is that the Prophus force him to quit his job and then expect him to live on a stipend which is even less than he would get by filing for unemployment. I would excuse it by saying that the Prophus are a smaller group with less resources, except the book makes a point of including a scene where the Prophus talk about how their cash flow is doing great due to lucrative investments in the cosmetics industry. I guess it’s supposed to be a thing where Genjix agents are greedy sellouts whereas Prophus agents are in the fight because their cause is just rather than because they’ll be rewarded, but… this attitude might have something to do with why people are always defecting from the Prophus to the Genjix and never the other way around, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, book does eventually get good once stuff starts going down at the Decennial conference and Roen has to deal with some actually substantive matters rather than just running away from Genjix or doing boring stakeouts; but that’s three-quarters of the way through the book. It shouldn’t take that long for something interesting to happen.

Luckily, I do have assurance from The Rise of Io that this story is actually going somewhere, so I’ll be sticking with the Quasing series. Score one for anachronic order.

Final Rating: 3/5

Major Ariane Kedros #1: Peacekeeper

When war ends, peace begins; but old grudges never die, and past enemies make uneasy neighbors. It’s a perfect setting for espionage; so let’s begin the Major Ariane Kedros trilogy by spying into Peacekeeper, by Laura E. Reeve.

Synopsis:

First in a brand new action-packed military science fiction series, meet Major Ariane Kedros—daring pilot, decorated soldier, war criminal.

Fifteen years ago, Ariane Kedros piloted a ship on a mission that obliterated an entire solar system. Branded a war criminal, she was given a new identity and a new life in order to protect her from retribution.

But now, twelve of Ariane’s wartime colleagues are dead— assassinated by someone who has uncovered their true identities. And her superiors in the Autonomist army have placed her directly in the assassin’s line of fire on a peacekeeping mission that will decide the fate of all humanity…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Peacekeeper falls into that interesting category of sci-fi involving the future not of Earth as we know it, but of an alternate-history that already diverged in the distant past. In this case, Alexander the Great succeeded in unifying the Earth, resulting in the continued dominance of Greek language and culture up to the point humanity was contacted by the alien Minoans. Though it’s only a background detail unrelated to the specific details of the plot, it adds an interesting flavor of uniqueness to the setting. In that way, I’d say it’s most similar to R. M. Meluch’s military sci-fi series Tour of the Merrimack, which features heavy Roman cultural themes in its futuristic setting. Whereas Tour of the Merrimack is much more focused on active combat engagements and warfare, however, Peacekeeper is more intrigue-based: formerly warring sides ostensibly truce adhering to the terms of a truce while secretly still looking for advantage of the other.

To be honest, though, I actually prefer the more combat-heavy, action-oriented style of Tour of the Merrimack. With intrigue-based plots, I often have the problem where they’re either so simple that I figure them out in the first half of the book and spend the rest waiting for the characters to catch up, or so complicated that even after multiple re-reads I still can’t figure who exactly was betraying whom and why. Spin Control by Chris Moriarty is an example of the latter type, while this book unfortunately falls into the former. As soon as Cipher appeared in a flashback, and it was mentioned that Cipher’s “death” occurred out of order with the others and no body was recovered… well, the big reveal didn’t exactly come as a surprise.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t call the reveals of Jacinthe as the Terran mole or Mr. Customs as Nestor’s murderer. Then again, neither of those mysteries were given the same plot significance. The answers were basically just tossed out at the end in an “oh, and by the way…” aside.

In the book’s defense, though, the rest of it worked pretty well. I liked Ariane Kedros’s character: an old soldier given a new identity to avoid retribution for alleged war crimes, driven to substance abuse by the guilt over her actions during the war, still undertaking suspect black-ops missions for the military because she doesn’t know how to adjust to civilian life. And while the mystery of this particular book may have been a flop, it set up some juicy plot threads ripe for exploration in the rest of the trilogy: the new discovered non-Minoan alien ruins, and the imminent arrival of information which will confirm the uncertain consequences of the deployment of Temporal Distortion weapons against the Ura-Guinn system during the war. It has succeeded in getting me interested enough in the universe that I’ll be checking out the sequels.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Age of Discovery #2: Cartomancy

The Age of Discovery continues with a tale of maps and magic. Let’s explore Cartomancy, by Michael A. Stackpole.

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole returns with the second book of a groundbreaking trilogy charting exciting new territory in fantasy fiction. Cartomancy follows a group of trailblazing mapmakers with the power to discover new worlds and shape reality itself .

Under the shadow of invasion by a nameless enemy, there seems only one way to save Nalenyr from oblivion. The old heroes who once defended the land must be awakened. And accomplishing that requires a journey across the magical wasteland where they’re rumored to be trapped a wasteland rife with magic and danger.

Grandson of the Royal Cartographer, Keles Anturasi finds himself trapped in an enemy nation where his skill may well be his death sentence. His brother Jorim is an ocean away, captive in an altered realm in which he’s regarded as a god. And their sister Nirati resides in a paradise that exists between life and death with her insane grandfather and an ancient sorcerer bent on the world’s destruction.

Now they and their companions must struggle to survive in a world where war on earth mirrors war in heaven. What the gods themselves fear, men must brave. Heroes and mystics they may be, but can any of them survive in a world where things are seldom what they seem: a place where dreams can become reality and reality can turn into a nightmare….

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Cartomancy manages to up the complexity level of The Age of Discovery considerably; no mean feat, when you consider how A Secret Atlas kicked it off. The previous book managed to organize the characters into three main storylines – two exploratory expeditions and the Imperial politics back home – and then tied those storylines together at the end with each group independently learning of the threat posed by Nelesquin. In this book, the groups of characters from those three plotlines have been split up and side characters elevated to point of view characters to keep us informed of what all of them are doing, thus resulting in a profusion of new threads. For the politics in the Nine Principalities, we receive the viewpoints of Prince Cyron, Prince Pyrust, Grand Minister Pelut Vniel, and assassin Junel Aerynnor; the expedition into the north splits into three separate groups with viewpoints provided by Keles, Moraven Tolo, and Ciras; and then, far away from everything else that’s going on, Nirati is in some supernatural realm of undeath and Jorim is doing some mystical bullshit in a jungle on another continent altogether. Nirati’s viewpoint is at least useful, because through her we get to see what Nelesquin is up to, but Jorim’s story did absolutely nothing for me.

Which is not to say I approve of Nirati’s story – not only has she been stripped of all agency, abandoning the plotline she seemed to be building to in the first book about trying to discover her talent in favor of becoming a passive observer to the work that Nelesquin and Qiro are doing, but the death god Grija says that saving the world will require Jorim to horrifically murder her a second time. Because as you all know, the only proper place for a woman is in the kitchen – specifically, chopped to pieces and stuffed into the fridge. Let me tell you right now, there would have to be some really spectacular and unexpected twist in the final book to redeem the Nirati plotline for me, because so far – not digging it.

I also have to question the very strange decision to inexplicably switch from the usual third-person limited narration style to first-person narration in Moraven Tolo’s segments. I mean, either style is a legitimate way to narrate a story, but to suddenly make the switch midway through a trilogy? Usually, you pick a narration style at the beginning of your series, and then you stick with it. The only other example of a series abruptly switching the type of narration this way is The Darksword Trilogy, with the fourth book of the trilogy (…I know, I know) switching from the third-person of the previous books to first person. I guess you could make an argument for the Hyperion Cantos as well, with Endymion becoming first-person narrator for the latter two books; but there’s a clear structural divide between the two halves of the series, rather than the switch-up coming right in the middle of the narrative arc. In any event, it comes off as extremely awkward, and I have to question if it was actually necessary.

But hey, let’s not focus entirely on the negative. Cartomancy has plenty of positive aspects to it as well. Happily, the series has addressed by criticism of the first book by substantially reducing the number of made-up fantasy terms it uses. For instance, jae-whatevers are now commonly referred to as Mystics, which is a much easier word to parse when reading. A couple of new made-up fantasy terms are introduced, vhangxi and kwaijin; but since they are the names of invented fantasy races with no real-world counterparts, I don’t have a problem with them.

On the character side, I really like the portrayal of Prince Pyrust. He’s an antagonist, but one with clear and rational motivations and goals. He’s ruthless, but towards meaningful ends rather than performing moustache-twirling villainy for the mere sake of it; he’s ambitious, but seeks power because he believes his strict rule is necessary to preserve the Nine Principalities from destruction rather than mere avaricious power-hungriness. He serves Grija, God of Death; but because he believes that maintaining the heavenly balance of power is necessary for humanity’s survival, not in a generic “mwa-ha-ha-ha, I am evil and worship death and will make the streets run red with the blood of human sacrifices and erect pyramids of skulls as temples to the glory of my dark master” kind of way. (Ironically, it’s Jorim, a protagonist, who’s been erecting pyramids of skulls. But they’re orc skulls – myozan are basically orcs like viruk are basically elves – which makes it triumphant and glorious rather than morbid and diabolical). It’s for that reason that Pyrust makes for a more interesting character and villain than Nelesquin, who hasn’t really been given any depth or complexity. Evil usurper wants to overthrow the Empress, rule the world, become a god…. bo-ring! Come back when you’ve got some actual depth, you Skeletor wannabe!

Finally, let me close out by noting that the long-missing Empress, the physically mighty and mystically potent figure of legend who united all Nine Principalities under her rule to endure the Cataclysm and has been prophesied, like Arthur the Once and Future King, to be merely sleeping rather than dead and destined to return to save the Principalities in their hour of direst need, has finally been revealed… and she’s spent the last 500 years using her magical eternal youth to work a job as the capital’s most famous prostitute.

The Age of Discovery, I’m not saying you have a problem with your female characters; I’m just saying that I’m ending the review here because spending any longer thinking about this might make me lower my score.

Final Rating: 3/5

Void City #1: Staked

Void City: it’s where the vampires run strip joints, the werewolves play hockey, and the devil goes to steal souls when he’s in a bind because he’s way behind and he’s willing to make a deal. Let’s unearth Staked, by J. F. Lewis.

Synopsis:

UNREPENTANT. UNIMPRESSED. AND TOTALLY UNDEAD.

Eric’s got issues. He has short-term and long-term memory problems; he can’t remember who he ate for dinner yesterday, much less how he became a vampire in the first place. His best friend, Roger, is souring on the strip club he and Eric own together, and his girlfriend, Tabitha, keeps pressuring him to turn her so she can join him in undeath. It’s almost enough to put a Vlad off his appetite. Almost.

Eric tries to solve one problem, only to create another: he turns Tabitha into a vampire, but finds that once he does, his desire for her fades – and her younger sister, Rachel, sure is cute. When he kills a werewolf in self-defense, things really get out of hand. Now a pack of born-again lycanthropes is out for holy retribution, while Tabitha and Rachel have their own agendas–which may or may not include helping Eric stay in one piece.

All Eric wants to do is run his strip club, drink a little blood, and be left alone. Instead, he must survive car crashes, enchanted bullets, sunlight, sex magic, and werewolves on ice–not to mention his own nasty temper and forgetfulness.

Because being undead isn’t easy, but it sure beats the alternative.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Staked may be unique among urban fantasy vampire novels I’ve read in one regard: it steers clear of vampire politics. Usually, vampires are organized into clans or covens or whatnot with strict hierarchies and elaborate rules; full of ancient, stuffy vampires who behave with impeccable formality and politeness while secretly plotting to undermine one another. It may very well be like that for the mainstream “high society” vamps, but it’s a lifestyle Eric wants no part in. He’s strong enough that he can ignore the other vampires entirely and play by his own rules: running a strip club in a sleazy part of town, getting into street fights with other supernaturals, and having a string of very bad relationships with vampire-groupie girlfriends. It’s a nice, fresh change of pace from the usual vanilla Camarilla vamps. Sure, there’s a Masquerade keeping most of the mortal residents of Void City in ignorance of the supernaturals among them, but Eric plays no part in upholding it; he just takes advantage of it while doing things his own way.

Speaking of Eric, the character concept of a vampire with memory issues is an instantly intriguing one. It’s an idea I’ve seen played for pathos before, with Pawl a’Seatt from the Saga of the Noble Dead – a mostly non-malicious vampire so old that he’s forgotten how he was sired, and is obsessed with the few fragments of ancient memory he retains – but he was only a minor character in that series, not a lead protagonist like Eric. Eric’s poor memory is a source of mystery, as he cannot remember how he became a vampire; but it is also played for comedy – the amusing running gag of him losing track of time and getting ignited by sunlight.

On the whole, Eric is the kind of protagonist who is his own worst enemy; he possesses incredible vampiric powers, but keeps making terrible life decisions. It’s a fine line when writing a protagonist like this, because they can easily turn unsympathetic; but I think Eric pulls it off. It helps that he acknowledges his flaws, and is in fact disturbed by the way Greta hero-worships him. There’s also the fact that he isn’t the only one making bad decisions: Tabitha insists on being turned into a vampire despite repeatedly being told it won’t be as awesome as she expects. And finally, it helps that his problems aren’t entirely self-inflicted: he actually does have enemies manipulating events to try and bring about his downfall. It’s easy to sympathize with him in spite of his self-sabotaging behavior because he’s not the one who causes the initial problem; someone else does that, and then Eric has to try and overcome his self-destructive impulses long enough to stop making matters worse and actually fix things. I always found myself rooting for him to solve his problems, even though he remained the type of person to whom I’d never lend anything which I might eventually actually want back.

The novel tries to play it off like it’s a mystery who the villain is, but it becomes pretty obvious right around the time Roger gets Eric drunk, leads him into an ambush by a bunch of werewolves, and conveniently disappears. Fortunately, there are a couple of other mysteries of an actually intriguing nature, such as what’s up with the “uber-vamp” transformation Eric undergoes during his rage blackouts and how Rachel apparently returned from the dead. Plenty of hints are dropped – deals with demons for second chances, a rank above Vlad called Emperor, revenant eyes – which make me eager to find out what’s really going on.

To top it all off, there’s a very strong cast of secondary characters rounding off the book: Talbot, Eric’s loyal assistant and some sort of divine cat monster; Greta, Eric’ vampiric daughter who has a compulsive eating problem; Phillip, formerly Phillipus, the extremely ancient and powerful wizard-turned-vampire who acts with all the charm and dignity a high society vamp should but who has just enough arrogance, power-hungriness, and bloodthirsty madness simmering beneath the polite veneer that you just know he’s going to end up a future antagonist; Veruca, the vampire with an unfortunate name, unfortunate nickname, and unfortunate limit to her shapeshifting powers; Magbidion the hell-bound mage who hopes Eric can win his soul back from the demon he sold it to; and of course Marilyn, Eric’s tragic first love, who has grown old and ill but has never allowed him to turn her even as he has never stopped loving her.

So, in summation, this a very promising start to the Void City series, and I’m looking forward to following Eric through his future adventures.

Final Rating: 4/5