Wild Cards #8: One-Eyed Jacks

Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds: fire, walk with me. …Get it? Because the brothel in Twin Peaks was called “One-Eyed Jack’s”? …Everyone still remembers that show, right? …Right? There’s that new continuation series with David Lynch directing and everything… Sigh, whatever. Let’s just hit One-Eyed Jacks, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Something is stirring on Ellis Island, something strange and dangerous enough to subdue even the white-hot tensions between Wild Cards and naturals. The Jumpers are rising…

The members of this vicious gang have the power to jump their minds into others’ bodies, use them to commit acts of terror and violence – then withdraw as quickly as they came, leaving their hapless victims to face the consequences. Not even the powerful Aces are immune to the Jumper threat.

Begin a three-book struggle against the greatest enemy the Wild Cards have ever faced, edited by George R. R. Martin and written by Chris Claremont, Stephen Leigh, Victor Milan, John J. Miller, Lewis Shiner, Walton Simons, Melinda M. Snodgrass, and William F. Wu.

Source: back of the book (Goodreads link)

SPOILERS BELOW

One-Eyed Jacks serves as the introduction for the Jumpers, who will be the villains of this arc of novels. So, best to address this issue right up front: I don’t like the Jumpers. One of the interesting things about the Wild Cards universe is that no two Wild Cards are the same: each Ace and Joker is unique and different. So, having this whole pack of characters with the exact same powers really cuts against the grain. If there was just one Jumper, I’d probably think it was a really interesting new power to explore. As it is, it wears out its novelty real fast. Furthermore, by introducing so many Jumper characters, the novel denies all of them any actual characterization. It doesn’t matter if a scene features David or Zelda or Molly Bolt; as far as the book is concerned, a Jumper’s a Jumper – all interchangeable in terms of personality, motivation, and narrative role. Bo-ring.

Also not helping matters? The very first act by which we’re introduced to the Jumpers is them killing a lesbian. And you all know how much I love that, right? So the book gets dinged with a -1 Dead Lesbian Penalty right off the bat. Oh joy.

The main plot thread running through this book concerns Jeremiah Strauss, aka the Projectionist, aka Mr. Nobody. It starts off with him throwing a pity party for himself over his romantic failures. Oh, doesn’t your heart just break over the tragic woes of this rich, handsome, super-powered man? I’ll be honest: the first few chapters with him are pretty much a boring slog through his overexaggerated woes. Now, don’t get the wrong idea: I’m actually pretty fond of Mr. Nobody’s character. It’s just hard to stay interested in even a likeable character if all they’re doing is sitting around and feeling sorry for themself for page after page. Thankfully, this plotline starts to pick up after he begins working with Popinjay to investigate the Jumpers and begins, you know, actually going places and doing things.

There are also a couple of stories in the book focused on other characters. Of them, I’d say that “Luck Be a Lady” is the best, since it features a strong introduction for future recurring minor character Dr. Cody Havero. Lazy Dragon’s story “Snow Dragon” is also very interesting – while he’s previously appeared as a minor antagonist in other stories, this is the first time we’ve gotten his POV – but it has a problem: it’s a setup that never pays off. Now that Lazy Dragon has finally been promoted to main character of a story and we’ve gotten these tantalizing hints about his past and his unusual relationship to his sister, you’d expect that he’s going to play a larger role in events going forward and we’ll finally get clued into his mysterious backstory. You might even dare to hope that he’s going to get – gasp! – a character arc. Ha ha, nope! This is the final appearance of Lazy Dragon. No, I’m serious. The writers just forget about him. So long, Lazy; you had potential. In the same vein, Croyd’s ex-girlfriend Veronica finally flips the latent card she drew during the Typhoid Croyd epidemic and becomes an Ace. And you might think, based on her gaining superpowers and swearing vengeance on the Jumpers, that this is the origin story of a new recurring hero. Wrong again; like Lazy Dragon, she’s quickly forgotten. Oh, but on the plus side, we do finally get a story from the POV of the Oddity. Oddity’s become kind of a staple of the Joker community, featuring in a number of stories in roles of various prominence – most recently, it was one of the suspects during the investigation of Chrysalis’s murder – but we’ve never actually gotten to see things from its perspective before. And, spoiler alert, unlike Lazy Dragon or Veronica, it will be returning in the future and eventually get some final closure to its story.

What else, what else… well, there’s a pretty decent story about civil war within the Shadow Fists as Fadeout takes on Kien and Ma Sui for leadership. This story features the introduction of Warlock, a very minor character who I think is really interesting in concept, even if he hardly ever appears again. Well, in his case, he’s pretty clearly a minor side character from the beginning, so it doesn’t bother me as much as the underutilization of Lazy Dragon or Veronica. Umm… there’s a story about some bad shit happening to Captain Trips. I mean, it’s the start of a new character arc for him, but it really doesn’t have any connection to the Jumper stuff and thus feels really out of place and unconnected to anything else. Hmm, let’s see, I think that’s everything… except… oh no, wait, there was one more thing, wasn’t there?

Blaise. Fucking Blaise.

This is the point where Blaise goes full evil and becomes the Abomination, though of course he’s been an abomination in my eyes from the start. Let me be clear: having him to turn villain in this way does nothing to redeem his character. He was a whiny, arrogant, despicable little shitstain when he was with the good guys, and he continues to be just as annoying and unpleasant to read about as a bad guy.

Look, this book isn’t terrible. I liked seeing Mr. Nobody doing detective work and getting stories from Lazy Dragon and the Oddity. And it was a pretty effective first reveal of Bloat. But there are just too many problems for me to ignore.

Final Rating: 2/5

Allie Beckstrom #2: Magic in the Blood

Feel the magic in the blood, Allie, Allie, Allie. Levez les mains en l’air, allez allez allez. Let’s raise our hands into the air for Magic in the Blood, by Devon Monk.

Synopsis:

Working as a Hound-tracing illegal spells back to their casters-has taken its toll on Allison Beckstrom. But even though magic has given her migraines and stolen her recent memory, Allie isn’t about to quit. Then the police’s magic enforcement division asks her to consult on a missing persons case. But what seems to be a straightforward job turns out to be anything but, as Allie finds herself drawn into the underworld of criminals, ghosts, and blood magic.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Allie Beckstrom series continues, and the problems are just piling up for our plucky protagonist. She’s being targeted not only by a gangster and drug dealer specializing in twisted blood magic, but also magic-draining ghostly apparitions called the Veiled. And then there’s Dr. Frank Gordon, who appears in a single scene basically just to say “Hello, I will be your antagonist for this novel” and then disappears until the climax; where, in a shocking twist, it is revealed that he is indeed the antagonist who has been pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Who could have guessed?

Well, apart from the extreme unsubtlety of Dr. Gordon, the plot is basically decent. But there’s something about this series that’s increasingly rubbing me to wrong way: the way everyone is needlessly ambiguous and evasive when talking to Allie. In particular, I am so over Zayvion Jones. You can only do the mysterious and enigmatic thing for so long before you cross the line into just plain assholery, and Zayvion has reached that point. The breaking point for me was when he acted so shocked and concerned at the injuries Allie had sustained at the hands of the Veiled. Hey, Zayvion, you know what might have helped her avoid getting so badly injured? If someone who knew all about what the Veiled are and what they can do had deigned to share that information with her. Say, you know what might have been a good time to do that? After you had to do some weird super-magic chanting stuff to protect her from a massive attack by the Veiled. But no, you had to play your cards all close to the vest, dodging all her questions with excuses of having unspecified urgent business elsewhere and promises of explanation at some later date, and then just sauntered off and left her alone; as if the Veiled wouldn’t just come back the moment Allie didn’t have you there to protect her. Way to go, asshole.

myjobhereisdone

It’s still the first third of the series, so I’m willing to give it a pass on this… for now. But by the end of this book, Allie has been accepted into the Authority. Now that she’s been accepted into the secret society, that means there isn’t any reason for her to be kept in the dark any more. So I’m going to expect her to actually get some straight answers to the questions that Zayvion has thus far been dodging. If he keeps jerking her around… well, I’m going to run out of patience real fast.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Black Sun’s Daughter #2: Darker Angels

Something’s getting in the way, something’s just about to break; I will try to find my place, in the diary of Jayné. Let’s try to find out place in Darker Angels, by M.L.N. Hanover.

Synopsis:

In the battle between good and evil, there’s no such thing as a fair fight.

When Jayné Heller’s uncle Eric died, she inherited a fortune beyond all her expectations — and a dangerous mission in a world she never knew existed. Reining in demons and supernatural foes is a formidable task, but thankfully Jayné has vast resources and loyal allies to rely on. She’ll need both to tackle a bodyswitching serial killer who’s taken up residence in New Orleans, a city rich in voodoo lore and dark magic.

Working alongside Karen Black, a highly confident and enigmatic ex-FBI agent, Jayné races to track down the demon’s next intended host. But the closer she gets, the more convinced she becomes that nothing in this beautiful, wounded city is exactly as it seems. When shocking secrets come to light, and jealousy and betrayal turn trusted friends into adversaries, Jayné will soon come face-to-face with an enemy that knows her all too well, and won’t rest until it has destroyed everything she loves most….

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

So, Jayné and her gang have returned to hunt more supernatural parasites from the Pleruma. This time, they’re joined by a former FBI agent tracking body-hopping, serial-killing loa whose next target is a psychically-gifted voodoo priestess in post-Katrina New Orleans. In other words, just another average day’s work for The Black Sun’s Daughter.

If I have a complaint about this book, it’s that the third-act twist is too predictable. Just last book, we had the twist of one of the team turning out to be a rider. Now that he’s been kicked out, a new member is brought in to replace him – and it’s constantly noted that she’s behaving strangely, that she’s keeping something a secret, that her plans and explanations regarding the target loa don’t quite make sense when examined too closely. What could possibly be the reason for this strange behavior!? So, when the big “reveal” was made, I was disappointed by how obvious it was. I don’t think it counts as a twist if a blind man could see it coming.

Well, aside from that, the book was perfectly fine. Plenty more interpersonal conflict between the team members to keep things lively, more teasing hints about Jayné’s past with the revelation of her mother having an affair, and a pretty interesting final battle featuring Legba and Marinette teaming up with the heroes against Carrefour.

So, overall, a decent book. Just… the next one better not also feature a new member joining the team and turning out to be a rider. You’ve played that card twice already now, and it’s getting old. It’s time for something new and different, if you please.

Final Rating: 3/5

Greywalker #6: Downpour

When it rains, it pours. So, you’d better get out your umbrella; because today, I’m sitting down and pouring out my feelings about Downpour, by Kat Richardson.

Synopsis:

Harper Blaine was your average small-time PI until she died—for two minutes. Now Harper is a Greywalker, treading the thin line between the living world and the paranormal realm. And she’s discovering that her new abilities are landing her all sorts of “strange” cases. After being shot in the back and dying—again—Harper has lost many of her powers. Now, if the Greywalker dies one more time, she won’t be coming back. Harper’s only respite from the chaos is her work. But while conducting an investigation in the Olympic Peninsula, she sees a ghostly car accident and finds a victim who insists he was murdered, blaming the nearby picturesque community of Sunset Lakes—called “Blood Lake” by locals. Harper soon learns that beneath the icy waters of the lake hides a terrible power and a host of hellish beings—both of which are held under the thrall of a sinister cabal that will use the darkest of arts to achieve their fiendish ends…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The last book in the Greywalker series was something of a disappointment, but Downpour seems to have gotten things back on track.

After Harper’s death and resurrection at the end of the previous book, her Greywalker powers have gotten rebooted. While adjusting to the alterations to her abilities, Harper has been taking on primarily Muggle jobs – but a chance encounter with the ghost of a cold-case murder victim sets her on an investigative path that leads right into the Grey. Something has destabilized an extremely potent magical hotspot known as Blood Lake, resulting in a great flood of power free for the taking. All sorts of witches, sorcerers, and unsavory supernatural creatures have been drawn to the lake to try and steal as much of its magical bounty for themselves as they can. The result is a highly fractious group of greedy mages who are continually fighting one another for control of the lake’s power, except when they’re teaming up against anyone actually trying to fix the problem with the lake and stop the magic leakage. Many are the suspects for the crime Harper has come to investigate, and each of them is certainly guilty of at least something; the difficulty lies in figuring out which one in particular is the murderer Harper’s after, and how to fix the lake without any of the greedy mages using it deciding to turn her into the next victim.

The plot was clever, and it kept me guessing the whole way through as to who was guilty – or rather, who specifically was guilty of what, since there was hardly a clean pair hands amongst the lot of them. The suspects got enough intriguing characterization to make me interested in all of them to a great or lesser extent: the inhuman leyweaver who twists lines of magic energy into air; the half-insane voodoo-man who commands a small army of zombies to defend his territory; the witch who inherited a house built on a prime power nexus but was forced to leave it due to going on the run from the law, and the sister who usurped control of the nexus in her absence but has grown weak and sickly due to her enemies stealing her life when they siphon the lake’s power; and lastly but most interestingly, Jin the yaoguai – a demon of greed which was able to escape the Chinese underworld through a poorly cast spell. Naturally, he knows a whole lot more than he’s saying, but he drops a few hints that receiving some sufficiently rare and expensive gifts would likely loosen his lips.

Overall, I thought the story was pretty decent. Not good enough for me to increase my ranking to “Great”; but certainly better than the previous book, which ended up with a rating of “Poor”. In other words, it was “Good” – three out of five stars on my rating system. Onwards and upwards, Greywalker series! Let’s keep this upward trend going for the final few books and end the series with a perfect climactic volume.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Black Sun’s Daughter #1: Unclean Spirits

Jayné, the woman they call Jayné. She became really rich and protected the poor; stood up to the riders, and she gave them what for. Our love for her now ain’t hard to explain; the hero of Denver, the woman they call Jayné. …Okay, that was a little self-indulgent. In any case, let’s purify Unclean Spirits, by M.L.N. Hanover.

Synopsis:

In a world where magic walks and demons ride, you can’t always play by the rules.
Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn’t quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it’s all hers — and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.

Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric’s heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means — magical or mundane — so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.

Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions — Aubrey, Eric’s devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities — Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she’ll have to learn the new rules fast — or break them completely….

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With Women of the Otherworld over, I’m trying out lots of other urban fantasy series to fill the void. Does Unclean Spirits make the cut? Well, it’s off to a promising start.

Jayné (wow is it going to get annoying typing out that accent mark out again and again) is just an ordinary Muggle until her uncle dies and she learns that he was secretly super-wealthy and waging war against supernatural beings called riders. Jayné (yep, annoying) decides to avenge him by picking up where he left off and carrying out the assassination of the ancient sorcerer who killed him: Randolph Coin, leader of the Invisible College of demons and monsters.

The story has two things really going for it. First is the eclectic cast of characters, a group of quirky and flawed individuals who were only tentatively committed to uncle Eric and need to be wrangled into line by Jayné (Look, can I just call you Jayne? I know your name isn’t pronounced “Jane”, but this is really inconvenient). The characters totally click with one another, the interpersonal conflict works, and in particular I really hope circumstances somehow conspire to make them team up with Midian again in the future.

Second is the series’ unique take on supernatural beings, as parasites from another plane of existence which infect human bodies and then consume, manipulate or just plain evict the previous resident’s soul. So the numerous diverse supernatural beings in the setting are either humans dealing with an infection giving them a whole power-at-a-price, have unknowingly picked up a hitchhiker which is whispering subconscious advice into their ear, or extradimensional invaders driving hijacked skin-suits. The only other urban fantasy series I’ve read which I can recall going in anywhere near this kind of direction was the Arthur Wallace series by Jonathan Wood. That series got off to a good start, but went downhill real fast. Here’s hoping The Black Sun’s Daughter doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.

Oh yes, that’s right: the series title, probably the biggest sequel hook in that it hints as to an as-yet unrevealed mystery that will be explored in the sequels. Midian states that one powerful entity in the other plane is called the Black Sun. Ĵāyņë dreams about a black sun, and sometimes reflexively displays badass superhuman fighting abilities. During one such incident, she subconsciously mutters that she is her mother’s daughter. The series is titled The Black Sun’s Daughter. What could it possibly mean!? I haven’t got a clue. I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

Final Rating: 3/5

Blood Singer #1: Blood Song

I’m holding out for a new urban fantasy series, until the end of the night; and I can feel one approach like a fire in my blood. Let’s see if this series can sweep me off my feet by singing along to Blood Song, by Cat Adams.

Synopsis:

Bodyguard Celia Graves has definitely accepted her share of weird assignments, both human and supernatural. But her newest job takes the cake. Guarding a prince from terrorists and religious fundamentalists is hard enough, but it seems like the entire supernatural world is after this guy too. When she is betrayed by those she is employed to help, and everything goes horribly wrong, Celia wakes to find herself transformed.

Neither human nor vampire, Celia has become an abomination-something that should not exist-and now both human and supernatural alike want her dead. With the help of a few loyal friends-a sexy mage, a powerful werewolf, and a psychic cop-Celia does her best to stay alive. On the run from her enemies, Celia must try to discover who is behind her transformation . . . before it’s too late.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Blood Song presents an immediately compelling setting: a world where humans fear the night, cowering behind magic wards or on blessed ground to avoid the depredations of vampires, werewolves, and demons. Society maintains a veneer of normalcy by day, the world functioning very much like our own; but the setting sun illuminates just how fragile that illusion really is. Woe betide he who is caught without shelter when the monsters roam.

Celia Graves makes an excellent protagonist for this setting. A bodyguard hired by those seeking protection from the creatures of the night, a job gone wrong results in her being bitten by a master vampire. While she gets rescued before she can be fully turned, the attack results in her becoming a type of half-vampire known as an abomination. In this word where fear of monsters is very much justified, her new distinctly vampiric appearance marks her as an instant target for suspicion and prejudice. And that’s just one of the conflicts of the book: she also has to deal with the physiological changes of the partial transformation such as bloodlust and weakness to sunlight and worry about her would-be sire using his connection to her to track her down and finish the job, not to mention investigating the circumstances surrounding the set-up that led to her being attacked in the first place. Yet, despite the array of formidable obstacles in Celia’s path, the story never reaches a point where it feels like the odds against her are overwhelmingly hopeless; by occasionally providing Celia with a magic dagger gifted from an ex-boyfriend or a timely assist by a friendly ghost, the narrative ensures that she always comes off as capable of facing the challenges before her. Some other books I’ve read have made the mistake of making the odds against the protagonist so mind-bogglingly astronomical that it comes off as an unbelievable deus ex machina when he or she does win in the end; but this one manages a comfortable balance between Celia’s circumstances and her ability to combat them. She may struggle along the way, but she will ultimately prevail; and oh how sweet the victory will taste when she does.

While the book ends with the incident of the vampire attack on Celia having been resolved, plenty of plot threads are left to be explored by the rest of the series; in particular, all the ominous references to a dark and tragic past which resulted in Celia seeing a therapist and being haunted by the ghost of her little sister Ivy. More immediately, it seems that Celia has some siren relatives who have a big problem with her half-vampire condition, and the next book seems likely to deal with that. Well, consider me hooked: this is one of the several new series I’ve picked up that I’m most interested in continuing.

Before I can give the book its final score and bid you adieu, though, there is one final thing I need to mention. I think it’s serendipity that I should review this book immediately after Windwitch. In my review of that book, I mentioned that all the while I was reading it I was getting ready to hand out a Dead Lesbian Penalty for Vivia, and then ended up surprised when she managed to survive the entire novel. Well, after finishing the book, I was actually feeling a little foolish and scolded myself a bit. Obviously the author was aiming to be progressive, including not just a lesbian but a transgender character in the story as well; so wasn’t it a bit pessimistic of me to leap to the conclusion that Vivia’s sexual orientation automatically marked her for death? At this point, am I actually the one with the hang-up? Have I become the type of much-derided tumblr “social justice warrior” who sees discrimination where none exists? These thoughts were cause for deep introspection and self-reflection on my part.

Then I started reading this book, and boom! A lesbian is introduced in chapter one for the purpose of being murdered in chapter nine. There’s no happy ending, so they say; not for lesbians, anyway. I allowed myself to be temporarily blinded by a single bright spot; but on the whole, lesbianism in fiction is still a death sentence, or at the very least a guarantee that the character won’t get a happy ending due to her love interest dying or being forced to separate from her. My cynicism remains justified. Hell, even Windwitch is probably just dangling false hope in front of my face so it can snatch it away later; it’d be just perfect for me to praise it on that point only to have Vivia die in the sequel, right? Because that seems like exactly the sort of thing that would happen the moment I got complacent.

Anyway, the last two paragraphs were just a long way for me to say: this was a very good book, but I must apply my -1 Dead Lesbian Penalty to the score. Sorry, but rules are rules. Stop killing your lesbians, and I’ll stop docking you points for it. Capiche?

Final Rating: 3/5