The Bloodhound Files #1: Dying Bites

Who let the dogs out? It’s time to begin an examination of a new urban fantasy series: The Bloodhound Files. So let’s get started by profiling Dying Bites, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

Her job description is the “tracking and apprehension of mentally-fractured killers.” What this really means in FBI profiler Jace Valchek’s brave new world—one in which only one percent of the population is human—is that a woman’s work is never done. And real is getting stranger every day…

Jace has been ripped from her reality by David Cassius, the vampire head of the NSA. He knows that she’s the best there in the business, and David needs her help in solving a series of gruesome murders of vampires and werewolves. David’s world—one that also includes lycanthropes and golems—is one with little knowledge of mental illness. An insane serial killer is a threat the NSA has no experience with. But Jace does. Stranded in a reality where Bela Lugosi is a bigger box office draw than Bruce Willis and every full moon is Mardi Gras, Jace must now hunt down a fellow human before he brings the entire planet to the brink of madness. Or she may never see her own world again…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The thing which drew me to check out The Bloodhound Files was of course the premise: an FBI profiler unexpectedly pulled from our world into a fantasy realm full of vampires, werewolves, and golems, forced to use her talents to help her track down a serial killer in a world of magic she doesn’t fully understand.

The book wastes no time in transporting Jace to the alternate world. In fact, if anything, it occurred too quickly. I was left with a lot of questions I wish the book would slow down long enough to answer: how long have the two worlds been aware of each other? How common is knowledge of the existence of other worlds? How much contact is there between them? This is normally something that series address right away. The answer might be that knowledge is common on both sides and interaction routine (Tinker by Wen Spencer); or that it is common knowledge on the magical side but unknown on the human side (A Darker Shade Magic by V. E. Schwab); or that it is known by those in power but kept secret from the general public (Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica); or any of a number of variations – the point is, it’s made clear to the audience. Dying Bites, however, remains firmly ambiguous on the subject. The people Jace meets at her job treat it as no big deal that she’s been summoned from an alternate world, but Maureen implies that this was a ploy by Cassius to make Jace think she is disposable when in fact she is extremely valuable; the summoning sequence implies that Jace’s boss in the human world is aware of the other world, but the fact that it’s part of her trippy dream sequence means that it could just be part of the spell intended to put her at ease for her transition between worlds. I don’t know, and the book won’t tell me.

While that hang-up did prevent from getting into the book a bit, I did eventually get swept up in the flow of things and started enjoying it quite a bit right about the time Bearbreaker was introduced. From there, things started accelerating exponentially; one shocking twist and revelation piling on top of another until what began as a hunt for a single serial killer transformed into a desperate quest to prevent the world from being devoured by Lovecraftian gods. (“High Power Level Craft”? More like H.P. Lovecraft, amirite?) It was quite a roller coaster by the end, and I could easily have ended up giving this book a higher rating if only the beginning hadn’t been so slow and muddled.

As it is, it’s still enjoyable enough for me to recommend it. I’m definitely going to keep following this series; hopefully, with the main introduction to this new world now out of the way, later entries in the series will have the time to answer my remaining questions.

Final Rating: 3/5

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Magonia #2: Aerie

Magonia takes to the skies once more with the second novel of the duology. Let’s look to the skies with Aerie, by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Synopsis:

Where is home when you were born in the stars?

Aza Ray is back on earth. Her boyfriend Jason is overjoyed. Her family is healed. She’s living a normal life, or as normal as it can be if you’ve spent the past year dying, waking up on a sky ship, and discovering that your song can change the world.

As in, not normal. Part of Aza still yearns for the clouds, no matter how much she loves the people on the ground.

When Jason’s paranoia over Aza’s safety causes him to make a terrible mistake, Aza finds herself a fugitive in Magonia, tasked with opposing her radical, bloodthirsty, recently-escaped mother, Zal Quel, and her singing partner, Dai. She must travel to the edge of the world in search of a legendary weapon, the Flock, in a journey through fire and identity that will transform her forever.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

There is one aspect in which Aerie has my respect: early on, it establishes that Aza Ray and Jason have had sex. Practically every young adult book I read features a male and female protagonist with at least an implied romantic relationship between them – but within the story, the most that ever happens is possibly some kissing. If the relationship ever progresses further, we’re to assume that it happens after the end of the story, safely off-page. Are authors desperate to maintain a PG rating? Afraid of being accused of promoting teen promiscuity? Or do they just want to keep dragging out their love triangles on and on and on, and so put off the final hook-up until the end of the series? I don’t know. I just know that some book series I’ve read feel like they’re lacking something because of the way they limit their protagonists’ romantic development.

Now, obviously I’m not saying that every story with romance needs to shoehorn in an explicit sex scene. But the point at which a romance advances to the sexual level is an important step in a relationship and can provide huge potential for character development, even if all the hot and steamy parts take place between chapter breaks; and flat-out forbidding any mention of even the possibility of sex between characters can curtail the natural path of the story. A great example of sexuality done right in a young adult work is the anime Infinite Ryvius, where Kouji and Aoi ave sex for the first time between episodes 21 and 22. It takes place entirely off-screen, not a single frame of nudity shown; yet even without showing it or discussing it or lingering on it in any way, it manages to be a highly important story event, marking critical turning point in Kouji’s character development. And so I have to admire authors with the courage to write young adult series where the characters have sex or at least consider the possibility of their relationships becoming sexual. The Fearless series by Francine Pascal, for instance, which I would never actually recommend, I will at least give a small amount of credit for daring to have one of the heroine’s romantic relationships progress to the point she has sex.

So there it is: the one thing I like and admire about Aerie. Now, time to set about bashing the rest of it.

Remember what I said about dragging out love triangles? Almost immediately after the book begins, Jason betrays Aza Ray’s trust, and she starts wondering if she wouldn’t be better off embracing her Magonian heritage and entering a relationship with Dai instead. Never mind that Aza Ray chose Jason over Dai in the previous book, and will end up back with Jason instead of Dai at the end of this one; that love triangle is a dead horse which the book can’t resist flogging one more time.

And since books are of limited length, this boring and painful rehash of the pointless romantic conflict comes at the expense of time devoted to other characters, several of whom are abruptly and unceremoniously axed. Take Heyward, for instance, whose reveal I found to be one of the most surprising and compelling moments of Magonia. Now, in Aerie, she finally starts to become developed as a person rather than a plot device. Having learned how their biological daughter was abducted and replaced with a changeling, Aza’s family naturally wants to know if they’ll ever get to meet the daughter that they lost; and Heyward seems to be curious about the family she never got to know as well. So when circumstances force an uneasy alliance between Aza and Heyward, it looks like that might be something the story is interested in exploring… oops, Heyward just died. Well, never mind, I guess. How about Mr. Grimm? There was clearly something suspicious about him in the early parts of Magonia, but we never found out exactly what. Now’s the chance for him to come into the spotlight and reveal… nope, he’s dead. Wonderful.

Now seems like a good time to say that the author has stated on Goodreads that this will be the last book in the series. On the one hand, that explains why Heyward and Mr. Grimm got such abrupt curtain calls: there’s no time to give them proper character arcs, and you can’t leave those loose ends lying around. On the other hand, that means so much for any hope of a conclusion to all the other loose ends. Hey, what’s going on with SWAB after Aza threw their prison into chaos during her escape? Did that incident pretty much destroy the whole organization, or was it just one of many facilities? And hey, what about Jason’s relationship with his family? They threw him into a mental institution because they didn’t believe him about Aza, which seems like the kind of thing which might result in a pretty big emotional rift and maybe some lingering resentment: are they going to reconcile or anything? Seems pretty awkward to just leave things in limbo like that.

Aerie, like Icarus, tries to fly but ends up plummeting to its doom.

Final Rating: 2/5

White Trash Zombie #3: White Trash Zombie Apocalypse

We return again to the White Trash Zombie series; so rise from your graves and join the horde as I feast upon the brains of White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, by Diana Rowland.

Synopsis:

Our favorite white trash zombie, Angel Crawford, has enough problems of her own, what with dealing with her alcoholic, deadbeat dad, issues with her not-quite boyfriend, the zombie mafia, industrial espionage and evil corporations. Oh, and it’s raining, and won’t let up.

But things get even crazier when a zombie movie starts filming in town, and Angel begins to suspect that it’s not just the plot of the movie that’s rotten. Soon she’s fighting her way through mud, blood, bullets and intrigue, even as zombies, both real and fake, prowl the streets.

Angel’s been through more than her share of crap, but this time she’s in way over her head. She’ll need plenty of brainpower to fit all the pieces—and body parts—together in order to save herself, her town, and quite possibly the human race.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

When we last left the world of White Trash Zombie, Dr. Charish had escaped along with three soldiers-turned-zombies, intending to start a zombie supersoldier program. Corrupted by the formula of artificial brains Dr. Charish had experimented with on them, they showed signs of far more rapid physical and mental deterioration than ordinary zombies as well as a much higher level of contagion with their bites. Now, we follow up with a book title White Trash Zombie Apocalypse. Obviously, this new strain of infection is going to go out of control, threatening to cause a zombie apocalypse, and it will be up to Angel and her zombie allies to save the human race from annihilation…

…Or the title just refers to an in-universe zombie movie being filmed in Angel’s town.

Okay. I mean, that’s fine too, I guess. Not actually anything near as epic as what the title made me envision, mind. Kind of a disappointment, actually. I mean, talk about your misleading titles. But whatever. I review the books I actually read, which are not necessarily the books I could have read or wish I’d read.

There were plenty of things in the novel that I liked. The subplot regarding Heather, for instance, provided action, intrigue, and an interesting character: hers were definitely the best parts of the book. Also, I liked the scene where Angel finally revealed her condition to her father. I said in the previous book that in order for peripheral characters to remain relevant, they would need to be allowed to learn about the secret world of zombies; and what do you know, here it happens for one important supporting character. Thanks to these positive elements, I was able to enjoy the book well enough.

My main problem is that the title set expectations that the book wasn’t able to meet. When a novel has “zombie apocalypse” in the title, I expect there to be, you know, a zombie apocalypse. I was prepared for an epic game-changing, Masquerade-shattering, world-threatening incident to occur; and instead, it was just more of the same type of events as in the previous two installments. Really, if there was any kind of big upset to the status quo occurring in the book, it was the flood: it destroys Angel’s house, makes her reveal her zombie powers to her father, and results in her agreeing to work for Pietro in the future. The thing is, the flood is a natural disaster: it’s not actually connected to the villains or anything they’re doing. Thus, rather than seeming like a consequence of the dangerous zombie underworld Angel has been drawn into, it just comes off as bad luck. If the villains destroy the hero’s home, that means the stakes have been raised and things are now personal; if an impersonal force of nature unconnected to anyone’s actions destroy’s the home, it doesn’t quite carry the same narrative weight.

In any case, the book was ultimately decent, if not quite up to my unfortunately elevated expectations.

Final Rating: 3/5

Felix Gomez #2: X-Rated Bloodsuckers

The time has come to return to the very awkwardly-titled adventures of vampire detective Felix Gomez. This time, it’s – do I have to say it? Sigh, alright, here goes – X-Rated Bloodsuckers, by Mario Acevedo.

Synopsis:

Felix has survived Operation Iraqi Freedom, being turned into a vampire, and a ravenous horde of nymphomaniacs. Now he faces his toughest task ever—navigating the corrupt world of Los Angeles politics to solve the murder of a distinguished young surgeon turned porn star. But both human and vampire alike have reasons to want the secret to stay buried. . .

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

X-Rated Bloodsuckers, the second book of the Felix Gomez series, is in every way softer and more toned-down than its predecessor, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. No UFOs or alien infiltrators are brought in to mix up the genre; it’s just vampires and humans. The X-rating alluded to in the title comes not from sensationalist and entirely gratuitous nymphomania like the first book, but by featuring a porn studio as a setting. That’s hardly shocking; hell, The Dresden Files did a book about a vampire-owned porn studio, and it’s practically mainstream as urban fantasy goes. All in all, despite having a provocative title, this is a much more ordinary type of book.

And that’s a good thing.

The first book of the Felix Gomez series just screamed “trying too hard”. It was trying to be edgy and offensive for no actual purpose. And as I pointed out in my review of that book, it didn’t even succeed in achieving any shock value; despite how hard it was selling itself as dirty and raunchy and extremely radical, the actual content was fairly tame. Maybe it would have succeeded in making me blush if I’d read it when I was a young pubescent teen, but now? I’ve read stuff like the Second Apocalypse series by R. Scott Bakker, which makes The Nymphos of Rocky Flats look positively wholesome. Don’t make claims you can’t back up; it only leads to disappointment.

In any case, with X-Rated Bloodsuckers no longer trying to be outre and edgy and off-the-wall zany with aliens and nymphomaniacs and whatnot, it is free to concentrate its attention in other areas: things like plot and character and storytelling. You know, the things that actually make a book interesting and enjoyable.

Like the previous book, this one centers around Felix having to unravel a conspiracy. But whereas the elements in the first book seemed entirely random (why did the red mercury cause nymphomania? Just ‘cause.) and the antagonists disconnected from one another (what did the vampire hunters have to do with the alien conspiracy? Eh, it was all just a coincidence), this one does a much better job at tying everything together: there’s a group of antagonists working together towards greedy, immoral, power-hungry ends; there’s a second antagonist targeting the first group of antagonists in pursuit of vengeance; and the protagonist is stuck in the crossfire between them, dodging fire from both sides as he tries to figure who wants to kill whom and for what reasons. And in the end, when Felix unravels the web of conspiracy, everything ties together and makes sense.

Finally, on a personal note, I liked the ending. Whereas the big reveal in the first book was of an alien infiltrator who hadn’t actually done anything to contribute to the plot in any way, I was impressed by the big reveal in this one of how an alliance of rich vampires and powerful humans seeking to overturn the supernatural status quo found itself destroyed by the ruthlessness of an ordinary woman; a Muggle who had no idea she was up against vampires but managed to rise to the occasion and prevail anyone through sheer underhanded nastiness.

X-Rated Bloodsuckers is a big improvement from the first novel, and has won the Felix Gomez series a second chance from me.

Final Rating: 3/5

Women of the Otherworld #10: Frostbitten

It’s a damn cold night, and even wolves can get frostbite. The women of the Otherworld have returned for their latest adventure; so let’s give seven days to the wolves with Frostbitten, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Being the world’s only female werewolf has its advantages, such as having her pick of the Otherworld’s most desirable males. And Elena Michaels couldn’t have picked a more dangerously sexy and undyingly loyal mate than Clayton Danvers. Now their bond will be put to the ultimate test as they follow a bloody trail of gruesome slayings deep into Alaska’s frozen wilderness.

There’s nothing the werewolf community dislikes more than calling attention to itself. So when a pair of rogue man-eaters begins hunting humans, it’s up to Elena and Clayton to track down the predators. But any illusions their task would be simple are quickly dispelled. For even in werewolf terms, there’s something very disturbing taking place in the dark Alaskan forests. A werewolf more wolf than human and more unnatural than supernatural is on the hunt—a creature whose origins seem to spring from ancient legends of the shape-shifting Wendigo.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Clayton and Elena find themselves confronting painful ghosts from their pasts — and an issue neither of them is eager to discuss. For one of them has been chosen to become the new Pack leader, and as every wolf knows, there can be only one Alpha. They’ve always been equals in everything. Now, when their survival depends more than ever on perfect teamwork, will instinct allow one of them to lead…and the other to follow?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Women of the Otherworld series returns to its roots, with werewolf Elena once more taking the position of protagonist. This time, she and Clay find themselves in the untamed Alaskan wilderness, where they must confront the threat posed by a newly introduced supernatural race: the shape-shifting Ijiraat. These mysterious and powerful creatures, the latest introduction to the Women of the Otherworld series’s ever-growing roster of supernatural threats, will doubtless prove to be formidable adversaries who Elena and Clay will have to use all of their considerable strength and cunning to overcome.

Except not.

You see, Frostbitten is a throwback to the first Women of the Otherworld novel in another way, too: the main conflict is Pack werewolves versus rogue werewolves. That’s right, the antagonists aren’t this new heavily hyped species of supernatural, but just your plain everyday werewolf. In essence, all the hints and mystery and lore scrounged up by the protagonists about this mysterious and elusive new race are nothing but a giant series of red herrings. While some Ijiraat do appear at the end of the novel, they do absolutely nothing and have so little plot relevance that they could be cut entirely and the story would still play out the same way. What a letdown.

Maybe it was the intent all along for the Ijiraat to be red herrings: have all sorts of horrific acts blamed on these unstoppable monsters, only to reveal at the end that the real monster is man. (Or werewolf, I guess). It’s a twist I’ve seen done successfully in, for instance, The Creeping, by Alexandra Sirowy. However, such books have to walk a careful line. The more they build up the menace and suspense surrounding the supposed threat, the more the audience will anticipate the climactic unveiling of the threat. It is, after all, the classic horror-movie build-up used to such great effect in films like Alien and Jaws: at first you only see tiny glimpses of the monster, see the aftermath of its attacks and hear characters speculate about it; and then, at the film’s climax, you get the money shot where the monster finally reveals itself in all its glory. To subvert that reveal is to disappoint the audience with an anticlimax. And when the Ijiraat are finally shown, not as unstoppable supernatural killing machines but as a bunch of lazy whiners who complain about the rogue werewolves horning in on their territory but refuse to do anything about it and leave it to the protagonists to solve the problem, it is a massive disappointment.

Well, the rest of the stuff that happens in the book is decent enough, and the Ijiraat play a small enough role in the plot that they don’t manage to drag it down too badly. Still, such a major failure in narrative buildup and payoff destroys any chance the book had at excelling. In the end, the result is solidly mediocre.

Final Rating: 3/5

Quasing #2: The Deaths of Tao

That is not dead which can eternal lie; but with strange eons, even death may die. Let’s hold a funeral for The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu.

Synopsis:

The Prophus and the Genjix are at war. For centuries they have sought a way off-planet, guiding humanity’s social and technological development to the stage where space travel is possible. The end is now in sight, and both factions have plans to leave the Earth, but the Genjix method will mean the destruction of the human race.

That’s a price they’re willing to pay.

It’s up to Roen and Tao to save the world. Oh, dear…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

As the secret war between the Prophus and the Genjix continues, Genjix council member Zoras finds himself in a precarious position. With his plans to transform Earth into a reproduction of the Quasing home planet of Quasar at a critical stage, his old host dies, forcing him to switch to a younger and less experienced vessel. His new host is arrogant and impetuous, sometimes disregarding his commands and risking his work and his life; and his political rivals on the Genjix council seek to capitalize on this weakness.

Also, I guess the protagonists do some stuff as well, but it doesn’t seem all that important.

The Deaths of Tao has this problem where the heroes and villains seem to be in completely different stories. There are two protagonist viewpoint characters, Jill/Baji and Roen Tan/Tao; and one antagonist viewpoint character, Enzo/Zoras. What is Jill’s plot about? Political wrangling over a trade bill regulating commerce between the US and China. What is Roen’s plot about? A rescue mission to save a Prophus operative stranded in Taiwan. What is Enzo’s plot about? Battling Prophus insurgents trying to free prisoners from a camp in Tibet. The heroes should be trying to stop Enzo from carrying out his evil plan, but instead they’re off gallivanting around in completely different countries on completely different matters. Why isn’t our protagonist viewpoint character the leader of the Prophus insurgents attacking the camp? He’s the one actually fighting the bad guys!

In fact, though the book is named after Tao, he and Roen are saddled with the most pointless of the book’s storylines. Jill at least becomes relevant to the plot, once Enzo initiates Operation Eagle Purity and she has to fight assassins and make the decision to expose the Quasing to the world to stop the Genjix plan. Roen is off on a wild goose chase the entire time. He’s sent to Taiwan to rescue a Prophus agent stranded behind enemy lines, but for a long time has no luck in his search. Then, when he finally does locate the agent, it turns out that he wasn’t supposed to: the agent didn’t want to be extracted, and Roen’s team were supposed to be decoys who would search in the wrong place and thereby lure the Genjix away from the agent’s actual hideout. Then Operation Eagle Purity goes down and the whole thing becomes irrelevant anyway. As a bonus, Roen is left stranded a long way from the action going down in the States, unable to become relevant the way Jill does. For all of Tao’s impact on the plot, he might as well not have bothered to show up in a book bearing his name.

Lest you be tempted to take this as praise for Jill’s plot, don’t forget that Operation Eagle Purity doesn’t start until near the end of the book. The rest of the time e spend with her is just one long training montage. Because God knows we didn’t get enough of them in the previous book. It’s a sad state of affairs when Zoras, the villain, is the only character doing anything I care about. Say this for him: he may be evil, but at least he’s not boring!

Well, with the existence of the Quasing having been exposed to the world, hopefully the next book will heat things up a little. Because seriously, Tao; the goodwill Ella Patel bought you will only stretch so far.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Witchlands #1: Truthwitch

How do you know if a witch is telling the truth? Ask her to repeat it in red! Wait, wrong kind of witch. We’re not bound for Rokkenjima; instead, it’s time to take our first outing into the Witchlands. Let’s unravel the skein of Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard.

Synopsis:

In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands.

Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home.

Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she’s a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden – lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult’s true powers are hidden even from herself.

In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls’ heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

As the first book in a new series, Truthwitch introduces a new world, new characters, and a new magic system. Each of these elements, in isolation, seemed great. You’ve got this world where the great nations, after an all-too-brief peace, are once more marching inevitably towards a great war. You’ve got two strong female leads in Safiya and Iseult, and two intriguing foils in Merik and Aeduan. And you have the varied and nuanced powers of witchery. All of these were fantastic. Yet as much as I liked the ideas the book was presenting, I found that I was having a hard time staying interested in the story.

The problem, I think, is one of cohesion. The book doesn’t seem to know what story it’s telling, as it keeps bringing up new plot threads which seem to supercede previous ones in importance, then carelessly discarding them to take the story in a whole different direction. Let me show you what I mean:

The first plot thread to be presented is that Safiya has to go on the run. She and Iseult lost all their money when an attempt to cheat and gambling backfired; an attempt at robbery hit the wrong target and resulting in them becoming wanted by the police; the Emperor has learned that Safiya is a truthwitch and plots an arranged marriage with her to exploit her power; and so they have to run, run, run away while the bloodwitch Aeduan is pursuing them with the relentlessness of the Terminator. Okay, great: you could make a good book out of that.

Then a second plot is introduced: Iseult’s home village has been taken over by an evil cursewitch who uses his vile power to gradually drain the power and life of everyone around him, and Iseult unknowingly falls into his clutches when she comes to petition her family for aid. This plot pretty clearly seems to be an escalation over the previous one: rather than the heroes just trying to escape pursuit, there’s now the lives and freedom of a whole village is at stake. And Corlant the cursewitch is more villainous than Aeduan the bloodwitch: while Aeduan has a sense of honor about things such as Iseult sparing his life when she could have killed him and not killing guards with families just because they get in his way, Corlant has no such compunctions. Plus, there’s the whole “this time, it’s personal” thing with Iseult knowing Corlant from her childhood and him threatening her home and her family, whereas she’d never met Aeduan before and had no connection with him. Okay great: you could also make a great book out of that.

Then a third plot is introduced: the weavewitch known as Puppeteer is terrorizing the land by raising a massive army of magic-wielding zombies. This plot again seems an escalation over the previous one: whereas Corlant is a threat to one village, Puppeteer’s army is a threat to an entire country; and whereas Corloant slowly drains the life out of people over time, Puppeteer immediately kills them and then raises their corpses to do her bidding and add to the ever-growing strength of her army. Furthermore, this time it’s even more personal: while Iseult and Corlant have a shared history, Puppeteer is able to actually invade Iseult’s mind while she sleeps and read her thoughts. Further emphasizing the intimacy of their connection, Puppeteer implies that Iseult is not truly a threadwitch like everyone believes but rather a weavewitch like Puppeteer. It’s a classic evil counterpart situation; Puppeteer is a tailor-made nemesis and Iseult will no doubt have to go through the traditional journey of discovering the true potential of her powers, angsting over whether her powers are inherently bad and she’s destined to turn out evil like Puppeteer, and mastering her abilities in order to finally beat Puppeteer at her own game. Great, great: you could make a great book out of that as well. But probably not the same book as the previous two plotlines, because the narrative is beginning to feel a little overstuffed.

And then a fourth plot is introduced, because why go for a triple play when you could make it a grand slam: the Origin Wells which are the source of all magic in the world have become corrupted, and as a result of this witches live with the danger of losing control of their powers and becoming twisted engines of magical destruction at any moment, but there is a prophecy that a pair of women called the Cahr Awen will appear to restore the wells, cure the corrupted, bring balance to the Force, and give every girl a pony for her birthday. This plot seems is again an escalation over the previous one, because now the protagonists are the Chosen Ones and the fate of the entire world rests in their hands. Okay great: you could… yeah, you know the rest.

I’m not even counting the whole impending war between nations thing as a plot, since it’s more of a setting detail. The point is, out of these four plots of ever-increasing scope and consequence which the book introduces, it chooses to drop the latter three like hot potatoes after briefly introducing them and then spend all its time addressing is the first one, the least significant one. I mean, who cares about the fate of the world, the nation, or Iseult’s hometown: what I’m really interested in learning is whether romance will boom between Safiya and the hot-tempered captain chartered to smuggle her out of the country. I mean, they hate each other at first sight, and I’ve read enough romances to know what that means! First they despise the very sight of one another, then someone gets called a stuck-up half-witted scruffy-looking nerf-herder, and after that it’s only a short way to the altar.

All that said, I’m willing to cut this book some slack because it’s the first in a series and is clearly building up plot hooks which will only be fully explored in later volumes. The title, Truthwitch, indicates Safiya to be the main character of this volume; thus it makes sense that her personal conflict, trying to escape from the Emperor and the others who wish to abduct her for her Truthwitch powers, receives center stage. It’s unfortunate that her plot happens to be the one that interests me least, since it centers on her running away from things rather than towards something – there’s no clear destination, no final end-goal – but it does suggest that I might find the sequels of greater interest.

Ultimately, Truthwitch is a decent novel, and that’s something I’m perfectly willing to repeat in red. So go right on ahead, cue up “Dread of the Grave” on your sound system, and give this book a try..

Final Rating: 3/5

Red Eye #1: Frozen Charlotte

There’s a creepy doll, that always follows you. It’s got a ruined eye, that’s always open; and it’s got a pretty mouth, to swallow your soul. The doll is in your house and in your room and in your bed; the doll is in your eyes and in your arms and in your head. Let’s chill out with Frozen Charlotte, by Alex Bell.

Synopsis:

We’re waiting for you to come and play. Dunvegan School for Girls has been closed for many years. Converted into a family home, the teachers and students are long gone. But they left something behind…Sophie arrives at the old schoolhouse to spend the summer with her cousins. Brooding Cameron with his scarred hand, strange Lilias with a fear of bones and Piper, who seems just a bit too good to be true. And then there’s her other cousin. The girl with a room full of antique dolls. The girl that shouldn’t be there. The girl that died.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. The beginning of Frozen Charlotte made it nearly impossible for me to take the rest of the book seriously. The book opens with the characters talking about how risky and dangerous Ouija boards are because of all the occult deaths associated with them.

“Isn’t there some kind of law against Ouija boards or something? I thought they were supposed to be dangerous.”
Frozen Charlotte, Chapter One

I’d like to shout at the characters: It’s a toy! It’s made by Hasbro and sold along with Transformers and My Little Pony dolls! Why are you making such a big deal about this?

But okay, reading a horror story involves a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. By picking the book up, you are accepting the premise that ghosts or monsters or malevolent spirits really do exist, at least in this fictional world. If a bunch of teenagers go to a graveyard or a haunted house with an Ouija board, obviously there’s no way it can end except with one or more of them getting killed or possessed. In fact, if you think about the logical consequences of the premise, it almost makes sense. If, in this fictional world, ghosts and demons and ambiguous evil forces really do exist, and really can be summoned using Ouija boards, then of course they would be regarded as dangerous. Hasbro would have dropped the patent like a hot potato after the first few children got their faces chewed off by horrors from the Stygian haunts of Hell. It’s like Yu-Gi-Oh! in a way: at first it may seem silly that everyone in the world is obsessed with a silly children’s card game; but if a children’s card game allowed people access to real and verifiable magic powers, you’d damned well better believe that everyone in the world would want in on that action.

But here’s where that premise falls apart. See, the characters aren’t in a cemetery or haunted house at midnight when they use the Ouija board; they’re in a restaurant in the middle of the day. And they aren’t using an ancient cursed Ouija board they got from an elderly Chinese man selling monkey’s paws and Mogwais from a little shop that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be there tomorrow – they aren’t using a real Ouija board at all. They’re using a free phone app they downloaded from the Internet. And yet, despite this complete half-assed effort on their part, they succeed in calling up a terrible evil spirit capable of murder. Forget all the stuff I said before about rational consequences of living in a world where the supernatural is real: if it were this easy, it wouldn’t even be regarded as “supernatural”. It’d just be “natural”. All children would be taught: “don’t play with matches, don’t run with scissors, and don’t mess with evil spirits”. There would be cheesy educational films in schools, except instead of the lesson being “Just Say No to Drugs” it would be “Just Say No to the Occult”. There characters would have known not to mess with Ouija boards, and the inciting incident never would have happened.

Oh, and when I say the children succeeded in “calling” up a terrible evil spirit? Deliberate pun. Because after using the Ouija app on the phone, they get a call from the evil ghost. Yes, just like Samara from The Ring. By this point, I was shaking with laughter.

My, oh, my. All this writing, and I still haven’t gotten past the first chapter. Unless I want this review to be as long as the book itself, I need to speed things up a bit.

Having dug itself into such a deep hole in the first few chapters, the rest of the book really faced an uphill climb in trying to get me interested and invested again. Fortunately, it didn’t waste any time in setting about improving the quality of the storytelling. The first big step in this regard was introducing a new set of character, all far more interesting and intriguing that the Ouija-phone dumbasses. Lilias, for instance; her cartilogenophobia made for a unique character quirk that gave me an immediate interest in her past and foreboding as to what horrors lay in her future.

However, the moment things really liven up is when the book actually starts doling out the details behind the evil the Frozen Charlotte dolls have perpetrated: pushing people down stairs, drowning them in lakes, convincing them to commit suicide… they even stuck needles into Martha Jones’s eyes. Sounds like she could’ve used a Doctor! (…I’m sorry for that joke. I’m so sorry.) No, in complete seriousness, the dolls actually redeemed the story for me. Whereas before I was just giggling at the supposed horror, I found that they painted actual creepy mental images: dolls clawing at the inside of their glass cases, leaving tiny scratches in the glass; countless doll hands pressed against the house’s windows; the ghost piano surrounded by dolls; dolls embedded in the burnt tree and in the basement walls. And the final revelation that there were dolls inside all the walls all throughout the house… whoa. Maybe it’s just my personal biases speaking here; I always thought that the scariest episode of The X-Files was the creepy doll episode “Chinga”, and was surprised to learn that it got largely negative reviews from critics. So, take that for whatever it’s worth.

The ending was satisfactory in terms of protagonists surviving and villains getting their just desserts – I was just waiting for the epilogue where the dolls Sophie threw into the sea wash back up on shore, or some unburnt dolls are discovered in the ashes of the house, but it fortunately allowed the heroes’ victory to stand without feeling the need to throw in some bullshit stinger. It did, however, leave some questions unanswered. For instance, while Piper was apparently all Bad Seed from the start, Rebecca only became evil while under the influence of the dolls; and her ghost wanted to assist Sophie in uncovering the truth about her death. So if she was a benevolent spirit, why did she kill Jay? Unless it was somehow the dolls doing that, acting through her somehow? Or did she not actually kill Jay at all, and it was just chance or destiny that he would happen to die for completely unrelated reasons on the same day he asked her ghost when he would die? Also, I have to ask: where did the evil dolls come from in the first place? It’s not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book, but being left with such unsatisfying loose ends does prevent my from giving it a higher rating.

Finally, I suppose I should address the Red Eye prefix. Red Eye is a horror series put out by Stripes Publishing, featuring different authors writing different types of horror. My interest in Frozen Charlotte came from seeing it on the shelf in a book store, so I didn’t have any pre-knowledge of the series and that didn’t factor into my decision to read it. I honestly don’t have much of an interest in reading most of the other books in the series, based on the synopses I’ve read; and since it’s not a strict series in terms of direct sequels with the same setting and characters, I don’t really feel compelled to continue. However, one of the other books in the series is by the same author as Frozen Charlotte; and since I liked this one, I might eventually check that one out as well.

Wow, this ended up being a long review for a book I just picked up on a whim. But to sum up: Frozen Charlotte is cool by me.

Final Rating: 3/5

Void City #4: Burned

Welcome to Void City, where the vampires run the town, the cops are on the take, and the werewolves have found religion… for the last time. The series is coming to a close, and there’s hell to pay as Eric takes on the demon he made a bargain with for the soul of his beloved Marilyn. Let’s walk through the fire with Burned, by J. F. Lewis.

Synopsis:

IMMORTAL. INGENIOUS. AND DOWNRIGHT INFURIATING.

Void City’s resident badass vampire has a secret to keep, everything to lose, and a plan to win it all. Eric has taken control of the city’s supernatural hierarchy, putting all the deals and contracts that allow Void City to function up for renegotiation. When he installs his insane vampire daughter, Greta, as Void City’s sheriff of the supernatural, bloody mayhem ensues. To further complicate things, the love of Eric’s life is back from the dead, immortally young, at a cost that has put Eric under the thumb of a very powerful demon. The mysterious mouser Talbot, morose mage Magbidion, and all of Eric’s thralls are trying to help him keep things under control . . . But with early onset Alzheimer’s, vampire hunters, demons, a band of chupacabra, a cursed cousin with a serious grudge, and Rachel as his new “handler” . . . there’s just not an app for that.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In a departure from the style of the previous books, Eric is now the man with the plan. In the past, he’s been passive to the point of apathy, reacting only when circumstances left him with no other choice. No longer: he’s determined to defeat the demon holding Marilyn’s soul over him, and that means going on the offensive.

Of course, by the narrative law of the Unspoken Plan Guarantee, if the plan’s going to work, that means we can’t be told about it in advance – a difficult prospect when Eric is the main viewpoint character. Fortunately, it’s a line the book walks well, giving us just enough tantalizing hints to keep things interesting without giving away the game. Of course, Eric’s long-running memory issues pay off here: it’s not a cheat for his internal monologue to keep us in the dark about the plan when he can’t even remember it himself half the time.

But for those absolutely pivotal moments where we really cannot be allowed to know what Eric is thinking, the book has another solution: it cuts to the Greta and Evelyn buddy-cop show. Greta’s in top form here, following in Eric’s footprints and trying to puzzle out his plan so that she can ensure she plays the most critical role in it in order to prove her love for him; and in the meantime, just causing general havoc as she stomps around town imposing her own warped brand of logic on things. Void City, beware: there’s a new sheriff in town, and violators will be eaten. Evelyn is the perfect foil, the good cop to Greta’s bad; and also a compelling character in her own right, a reluctant monster struggling to hold on to what’s left of her humanity and find her place in the supernatural world. Hell, I wouldn’t mind reading an entire series just about those two getting up to wacky hijinks.

Now, I can’t quite say that the book is perfect. For one thing, I felt like Tabitha was given short shrift. She didn’t even get an epilogue; the last we saw of her was Marilyn leaving her staked body behind while rushing off to the final showdown. I also question the decision of bringing Rachel back, given that she doesn’t actually end up doing much of anything; I personally found her end in Crossed to be extremely satisfying and would have been happy leaving dead villains lie.

Ah, but what the hell. It had an epic final showdown and fully satisfying conclusion, and that’s all I can ask for out of the final book of a series that has been consistently extremely good.

Final Rating: 5/5