Allie Beckstrom #6: Magic on the Hunt

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

Synopsis:

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

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Rating: 2/5

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Wild Cards #10: Double Solitaire

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

Source: Back of the book; courtesy link to Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Rating 5/5

Edgeland

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

Final Rating: 3/5

Humans Bow Down

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

owtheedge

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

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

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

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

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

Final Rating: 2/5

The Black Sun’s Daughter #5: Graveyard Child

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

Final Rating: 4/5

Blood Singer #5: The Eldritch Conspiracy

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

Synopsis:

Celia Graves was once an ordinary human, but those days are long gone. Now she strives to maintain her sanity and her soul while juggling both vampire abilities and the powers of a Siren.

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

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

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

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Rating: 3/5

The Black Sun’s Daughter #4: Killing Rites

I will keep quiet, you won’t even know I’m here; you won’t suspect a thing, you won’t see me in the mirror. But I’ve crept into your heart, you can’t make me disappear… at least, not without some Killing Rites, by M.L.N. Hanover.

Synopsis:

Jayné Heller has discovered the source of her uncanny powers: something else is living inside her body. She’s possessed. Of all her companions, she can only bring herself to confide in Ex, the former priest. They seek help from his old teacher and the circle of friends he left behind, hoping to cleanse Jayné before the parasite in her becomes too powerful.

Ex’s history and a new enemy combine to leave Jayné alone and on the run. Her friends, thinking that the rider with her has taken the reins, try to hunt her down, unaware of the danger they’re putting her in. Jayné must defeat the weight of the past and the murderous intent of another rider, and her only allies are a rogue vampire she once helped free and the nameless thing hiding inside her skin.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Damn, this one kicked ass.

So, from the very first book, it’s been kind of obvious to us, the readers, that Jayné is possessed by a rider – titling the series The Black Sun’s Daughter kind of tipped the hand on that one. However, it is only now that Jayné herself is forced to face that fact herself, to come to terms with the Black Sun inside of her. And it is wonderful.

Of course, Jayné’s first thought is not to deal with Sonnenrad on equal terms, but to treat it as a squatter to be evicted just like any of the other riders she’s faced. So, naturally enough, she goes to get an exorcism. And that’s where this book really won me over, by flipping the traditional script upside-down. You see, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about books and movies and so on with exorcist heroes. The protagonists are always cast as righteous heroes fighting absolute evil; but I can’t help seeing that there is another side to them, a dangerous zealotry. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, for instance, is based on a real-world incident where priests basically murdered a mentally ill girl; and so it makes me uncomfortable that there’s a movie casting them as heroes for doing it. But this book is willing to jump head-on into the darkness: the exorcism going wrong, the priests imprisoning and torturing Jayné in the sincere belief that they’re doing it for her own good; and Jayné, deciding that Sonnenrad is actually the lesser evil, is finally forced to reconcile with her dark passenger.

What else is great about this book? Midian Clark, the affable vampire who helped Jayné against Coin and the Invisible College, shows up again. Oh, I was waiting for this – he was just too great a character to ride off into the sunset at the end of the first book and never be seen again. Midian provides the perfect counterpoint to the priests condemning Jayné as unclean: someone in a moral position to look up to her rather than down, to acknowledge and accept the darkness within her and yet also praise her very real virtues. Plus, someone to give a rider’s point of view on the world, explaining what the experience is like from the other side.

And what else is great about this book? Dolores, the inevitable girl sidekick. I have mentioned, have I not, that it is a law of urban fantasy novels that the badass female protagonist will end up adopting an adorable orphan girl as a surrogate daughter in order to show off her feminine and motherly side? I really need to coin a catchy term for it, like “Ellen Ripley Syndrome” or something. Well, Jayné can’t permanently adopt Dolores, because she isn’t actually an orphan – she just can’t go home for a while due to her sister being demonically possessed – but they certainly have that dynamic. And, even though their time together is brief, it nevertheless manages to be meaningful, as Jayné struggles to strike a balance in helping Dolores recover from the trauma of possession: on the one hand, she wants Dolores to feel strong and empowered rather than like a victim; but on the other, she can’t push too much responsibility or weighty decisions onto a young child.

And, while I’m talking about everything great about this book, might as well throw it out there: awesome climactic battle sequence, when the hundreds of Akaname the priests have unwittingly spread among those they’ve tried to help converge on the heroes for a dramatic final showdown. “I’m the hammer now, bitch!” indeed.

The Black Sun’s Daughter series is the best it’s ever been – and the climax is still to come. Can the final installment maintain this level of quality? Tune in to my review of the last volume, coming shortly, to find out.

Final Rating: 5/5

Wild Cards #9: Jokertown Shuffle

Cut the deck, because it’s time to deal up a new hand of Wild Cards. Lets start dealing with Jokertown Shuffle, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Bloat, the boy governor of the Rox, had dreams as big as his monstrous body. He wanted to make Ellis Island a safe haven for his people, a Joker homeland. To survive Bloat needed the Jumpers, adolescent outcasts who could steal a man’s body in the blink of an eye. He needed their money to feed the Rox. Even more, he needed their terrifying powers to stave off the vengeance of a frightened world.

But the Jumpers grew more vicious and uncontrollable every day, under the leadership of Dr. Tahcyon’s psychopathic grandson.

The greatest threat the Wild Cards have ever faced continued in this series.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Looking at the structure of Jokertown Shuffle, I would divide the plot into two major threads and four minor ones. The first major thread deals with Bloat, Governor of the Rox, trying to turn his island into a refuge from Jokers. Though he’s kind of positioned as an antagonist within the Wild Cards universe as a whole, these sections from his POV make him far too sympathetic to be regarded as a true villain. His intentions are noble, and his struggle to become a protector and a leader when he is in many ways powerless – unable to move his body, unable to provide enough food or space to the refugees flocking to the Rox, unable to get the Jumpers to obey him – is an extremely compelling one. The climax of the book, where Bloat finally is able to express the full power of his Wild Card ability to bring his visions of Heironymous Bosch’s demons to life and massacre the military force assaulting the Rox, is horrible and violent, yes, but also cathartic. Even though the ending is supposed to come off as ominous, with Bloat embracing his violent desires and preparing to wage war against the rest of the world, it feels triumphant. Though maybe that’s just my tendency to take a liking to villains shining through – I’m the guy who’s favorite character is Demise, after all.

The second major thread is about the ordeal of Dr. Tachyon as he is imprisoned and tortured by Blaise. And… what can one even really say about this plotline? Frankly, I find it unpleasant to read. Which is not necessarily to say that it shouldn’t have been written – I’m of the opinion that even extremely explicit torture scenes are not inherently gratuitous, that they can serve a useful and even necessary role in a story’s plot if properly executed; and I even greatly enjoy a number of works which feature revoltingly graphic descriptions of torture. It’s just… wow is it hard to talk about. …I’m just going to let this part lie.

The first of the minor threads is a conclusion to the long-running feud between Yeoman and Kien. Those two have been going after each other since the very first Wild Cards book, so it really is about time that it came to an end. It probably seemed like a good idea in the beginning – a Hawkeye or Green Arrow type character, someone who was good enough to hang with superheroes despite not having superpowers himself; and another Nat as his arch-nemesis – but I never found the story all that compelling. When super-beings are battling for the fate of the world, this little conflict between a local crime boss and a guy with a bow and arrow just doesn’t seem to amount to much. But still, even as I’m grateful that this excessively long plotline has finally been concluded, I have to say that the actual execution made it extremely anticlimactic. Some powerful Ace, who we’ve never seen before and will never see again, just pops in and uses her power to kill Kien like it’s nothing. While it’s supposed to bring closure to Yeoman’s story, it just ends up making Yeoman look like a hapless dope. He’s spent all these years struggling his utmost to take down Kien, never quite managing it, and then this completely minor character handles it in literal seconds with a mere wave of the hand. It kind of makes one think that Yeoman could have avoided years of strife and turmoil if, instead picking up his bow and deciding to put an end to Kien himself, he’d just asked someone with actual superpowers to do it for him. The times Yeoman worked as a character were when he was the underdog, facing super-powered opponents with nothing but his natural wit and skills. Being unable to handle a merely human opponent and having to get an Ace do the job for him… is pretty much the opposite of that.

Then there’s Cap’n Trips and K.C. Strange teaming up to rescue Sprout. If you recall, my major complaint about the Jumpers is that they lack any unique characterization; they’re all flat, interchangeable, two-dimensional villains. This plotline finally does something to rectify that by putting some actual focus on K.C. Strange and giving her a distinguishing personality – she’s no long just some random Jumper who could be switched out with Zelda or Molly Bolt or any of the many nameless ones without anyone noticing the difference, but a distinct person I’m able to form an attachment to. So, naturally, she immediately gets killed off. Naturally. Wouldn’t want any of our antagonists to be, you know, interesting.

The third minor thread concerns Veronica and Mr. Nobody. Veronica, if you recall, vowed vengeance against the Jumpers when her girlfriend, Heather, was killed in the first Jumper attack, and conveniently turned the latent card she’d gotten during the Typhoid Croyd epidemic to gain an Ace power. Well, now we get to see her in action… and it turns out she’s completely incompetent, capable of accomplishing nothing. First she learns that she’s actually been unknowingly working for Loophole, aka Jumper Prime, and is nearly killed by his bodyguard Zelda before Mr. Nobody rescues her; then, she has the opportunity to kill Loophole, but can’t go through with it, once again requiring Mr. Nobody to step up to the plate and get shit done. Veronica: the militant feminist who can’t accomplish anything unless a man does it for her. It’s so ironic that I almost wonder if it was meant to be satire; but honestly, bad writing seems more likely. Well, at least we get the cool scene of Mr. Nobody using his shapeshifting power to egg-beater Loophole’s brain.

Finally, the fourth thread deals with Shad, the man of many aliases: Black Shadow, Wall Walker, and Mr. Gravemold, to name a few. He takes part in several plot events, most notably rescuing Dr. Tachyon from the Rox, but there’s also a very strange interlude where Chalktalk transports him to an alternate world where samba music is illegal. It’s so weird and unconnected to anything else that’s going on; I have no idea what the point of that little diversion was.

Anyway, Jokertown Shuffle has a bunch of good stuff and a bunch of not-so-good stuff going on, and it all balances out at about average.

Final Rating: 3/5

Blood Singer #4: The Isis Collar

Uhhh… about the title. Funny, isn’t it, how new events can change the connotations of old words. In any case, the Isis referred to in the title is the Egyptian goddess, not the terrorist organization. Though the book does happen to be about terrorist attacks by religious extremists… You know what, forget it, let’s just get to reviewing The Isis Collar, by Cat Adams.

Synopsis:

Celia Graves was once an ordinary human, but those days are long gone. Now she strives to maintain her sanity and her soul while juggling both vampire abilities and the powers of a Siren.

Warned of a magical “bomb” at a local elementary school, Celia forces an evacuation. Oddly, the explosion seems to have no effect, puzzling both Celia and the FBI. Two weeks later, a strangely persistent bruise on Celia’s leg turns out to be the first sign of a magical zombie plague.

Finding the source of the plague isn’t Celia’s only concern. Her alcoholic mother has broken out of prison on the Sirens’ island; her little sister’s ghost has possessed a young girl; and one of Celia’s boyfriends, a powerful mage, has disappeared.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Just what trouble has Celia Graves gotten herself into this time? Well, she’s had the misfortune to stumble into the middle of a massive terror attack using a magical bio-weapon; a zombie plague that has been unleashed on schools across the country. With the lives of countless children at stake, only Celia can unravel the conspiracy and expose the perpetrator! …But, unfortunately, the truth turns out to be, well, kind of stupid. See, the terrorists were actually given the bio-weapon by a pharmaceutical company looking to make money by selling the cure. Yep. That’s not just stupid, that’s made-for-TV movie stupid; in fact, I’m pretty sure I once saw a really shitty one with that exact plot. Robert Ludlum’s Covert One: The Hades Factor, or some bullshit like that.

What about the titular Isis Collar? Well, it’s a powerful magic artifact owned by the villain behind the terrorism; but she seems to be using it for a second, completely unrelated evil scheme at the same time. Even as she’s doing this bioterrorism thing to earn lots of money on selling the cure, she’s also using the Isis Collar to steal magic power from other mages and add it to her own. Some villains want money, some want power; I guess this one wants both and is too impatient to go after them one at a time?

And just for a bonus: literal deus ex machina ending. Because a third-rate villainous plot deserves a third-rate resolution.

Well, at least I can say that the running subplots are interesting. Celia is still having major family issues with her alcoholic mother and enabling grandmother. Ivy’s ghost is possessing a young spirit medium, which isn’t really psychologically healthy for either of them. And desperate circumstances force Celia to promise a favor to a mysterious spirit entity. All good and interesting stuff. There’s also a continuing love-triangle subplot with Celia, Bruno, and Creede, but I can’t say I care about that. It’s dragged on for so long that I’ve completely lost interest.

You know what does interest me? The introduction of an FBI agent who’s a shapeshifting demon spawn. Now there’s a character I wouldn’t mind reading more about. A member of a species considered inherently evil, going against her nature and striving to good in the world… sounds intriguing, right? But I know better than to actually hope to ever see Indira Matumbo again. My past experiences with Zoe Takano and Dru Cristoffer have taught me not to get my expectations up, because the characters I find the most interesting always turn out to be extremely minor one-shot bit characters.

So, overall, The Isis Collar is a flawed but decent entry in the Blood Singer series.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Westing Game

Millions of dollars. Sixteen people. Only one winner. Let’s try to solve The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.

Synopsis:

A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger – and a possible murderer – to inherit his vast fortune, one thing’s for sure: Sam Westing may be dead… but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

What can I possibly say about The Westing Game? Many of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog are obscure genre fiction pieces, but this is an acknowledged classic of children’s literature. It managed to win a Newbery Medal despite not one single dog dying in its pages – quite a distinction, let me tell you.

Well, despite now being considerably older than the book’s intended target audience, I actually did read it once before, back when I was a kid. The only thing I actually remembered about it, though, was the house being blown up by fireworks at the climax. So, when it popped up in my Goodreads recommendations, I decided it would be interesting to go back and give it a re-read.

The set-up of The Westing Game is fairly standard for mysteries of its type. You’ve got the large group of people with no connection to one another (or so they think) gathered together, the puzzling will, the inciting murder (or so they think), the storm which turns the setting into a closed circle. The large cast of quirky characters gives the story a somewhat humorous bent that prevents it from being taken too seriously: rather than following a single major character who methodically works through the clues until they arrive at a conclusion, we jump between the perspectives of all the participants in the Westing game and are permitted to follow their often quite amusingly incorrect reasoning. The number of characters in the cast does mean it gets a bit difficult to keep track of at times, especially because it’s not immediately clear who’s important – we’re told at the start that some have secrets or are hiding their identities, so even apparently minor characters can’t be written off. Normally, I would classify these as flaws: lacking a focal character, ping-ponging between tons of different POV characters, and having a cast so large that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Mystery novels, however, are meant to test the mental acuity of the readers. Many may read the book, but only a few will have the intelligence and patience to keep track of all the clues and characters, think everything through, and reach the conclusion before the final dramatic unveiling. So, I don’t have any problem with it.

Say… something’s been nagging at me about this story. A mysterious will featuring a wordplay game. Sixteen heirs challenged to a game in order to gain a fortune. A storm which traps them together for a time. Someone bearing lingering guilt over a past death. One person playing multiple roles. The house blowing up at the end. Chess metaphors. All this seems… familiar somehow. Like it’s similar to another work I very much enjoy, though intended for a younger audience and thus far less dark and violent. Now what could I possibly be thinking of?

DlanorAKnox

Oh, hi Dlanor. Don’t know what you’re doing here; this isn’t really an orthodox mystery, in that there isn’t a detective or a culprit…

Okay, I admit it: returning to The Westing Game felt like reading baby’s first edition of Umineko no Naku Koro ni. But hey, that’s fine: Umineko is not just a mystery story, but a meta-analysis of the very nature of the mystery genre, and therefore heavily relies on the stories that have come before it. So, while it pays heaviest homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, it’s no surprise that it would also hold similarities to other mystery works. And though this story is of course much shorter and simpler than Ryukishi07’s epic eight-volume masterpiece, you can’t expect people to dive straight into the deep end. Plenty of young folks out there might start out reading books like this, find that they like it, and end up moving on to heavier fare. Just like I did. And, having returned to The Westing Game with my by now far-broader understanding of the mystery genre, I find that it still holds up as a fun and enjoyable read.

So, congratulations to Turtle: bratty little shin-kicker that she is, I liked her character and she was worthy of being the one to win the Westing game. Good on you, young detective.

Final Rating: 5/5