Women of the Otherworld #11: Waking the Witch

I could tell you a witch’s spell, but you just might blow your top; and you start to run just as I’m having fun, and it’s awfully hard to stop. Let’s rouse Waking the Witch, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

At twenty-one, Savannah Levine-orphaned daughter of a notorious dark witch and an equally notorious cutthroat sorcerer-considers herself a full-fledged member of the otherworld. The once rebellious teen has grown into a six-foot-tall, motorcycle-riding jaw-dropper, with an impressive knowledge of and ability to perform spells. The only problem is, she’s having a hard time convincing her adoptive parents, Paige and Lucas, to take her seriously as an adult. She’s working as the research assistant at the detective agency they founded, and when they take off on a romantic vacation alone, leaving her in charge, Savannah finds herself itching for a case to call her own. (She’s also itching for Adam, her longtime friend and colleague, to see her as more than just a little girl, but that’s another matter.)

Suddenly, Savannah gets the chance she’s been waiting for: Recruited by another supernatural detective, she travels to Columbus, Washington, a small, dying town. Two troubled young women have been found in an abandoned warehouse, murdered. Now a third woman’s dead, and on closer inspection small details point to darker forces at play. Savannah feels certain she can handle the case, but with signs of supernatural activity appearing at every turn, things quickly become more serious- and far more dangerous-than she realizes.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Savannah Levine: how she’s grown. Introduced to the Women of the Otherworld series as a mere child, she has now grown into a young adult ready for a book of her own. She’s high on my list of favorite characters, so I was really digging her first foray as main character. The story premise seemed slightly odd to me, as there didn’t really seem to be anything all that supernatural about the murders she was investigating, but she’s a strong enough character that I was willing to go with it and see where things led. And hey, give her props: even if it was a lot closer to an ordinary non-supernatural detective story than is typical for an urban fantasy book, I really enjoyed reading about her tracking down leads, questioning suspects, and just generally investigating the hell out of this huge tangled mess of murder, corruption, infidelity, drug dealing, cultism, and general small-town hick-sheriff incompetence.

The resolution is where things went south, however. There actually being two killers is a genuine clever twist: the initial murders of Ginny and Brandi were actually a purely human matter, and a clever witch-hunter decided to take advantage of the killer going uncaught and conceal the true nature of her own murders by making them look like the work of the same unsub. Hiding your crimes by making them look like a continuation of a unrelated, pre-existing matter is a classic strategy, one which was memorably used to great effect by Takano. Miyo Takano, I mean; not Zoe Takano. (You thought I wouldn’t find I way to make a Zoe Takano reference in this review – but you were wrong! I shall never cease my flagellation of that deceased equine!).

In any case, while two unrelated killers might be reasonable, bringing in a third murderer – also entirely unconnected to the other two – really starts to seem contrived. And having that third murderer be suddenly revealed, with no build-up whatsoever, as the vengeful ghost of a villain from a previous book, who escaped hell off-screen while nobody was looking, but it was actually totally common knowledge that she was at large, it’s just that everybody conveniently forgot to mention it until after the reveal had already taken place… captain, our suspension of disbelief is giving it all she’s got, but she cannae take much more of this!

The book ends on two cliffhangers. One, the witch-hunter villain managed to slip away without being caught: perhaps so the protagonists’ pursuit of her can continue into the next book, or perhaps so she can suddenly reappear when we least expect it, or perhaps, just possibly, to completely disappear and just inexplicably never have her subplot be resolved or mentioned again, like those fox maiden women or that shapeshifter guy. (Though I must admit to conflicted feelings about that shapeshifter guy. On the one hand, it offends my sense of closure, to so blatantly set up him escaping from prison and returning as an antagonist only for it to never happen. On the other hand, he was probably the series’ second-lamest villain, right behind Mr. Not-Really-Jack-the-Ripper, so I’m not really rooting for his return, either. Really, a footnote saying that it just so happened that he slipped in the shower and died offscreen would be the best outcome here. Hey, if a villain can escape from hell and come back to life offscreen…)

The other cliffhanger is Savannah seemingly losing her magic in exchange for hitting a big ole reset button on Kayla, or something like that; it’s really not entirely clear. I’m actually going to have to lay the blame on Savannah for this one, for she flagrantly violated one of the most sacred rules of the genre: in any urban fantasy book with a female protagonist, when the protagonist meets the adorable little orphan girl (and make no mistake, she will always eventually meet one), she must experience an awakening of her maternal instincts and decide to adopt the orphan girl as her own child. It would have been poetic justice, for Savannah herself was the poor orphan girl to Paige. Things would have come full circle, the adopted becoming the adoptee. But no, she decided to go the whole casual-wish-gets-unexpectedly-granted route instead; so we’ll be dealing with the fallout from that next time, I guess.

Whatever. I’m probably being overly nitpicky. Honestly, I did enjoy it just fine while I was reading it; it was only afterwards that all the problems started weighing on my mind and caused my poor, abused suspension of disbelief to collapse. I guess that taken as a whole, it’s probably a fine enough book, for the most part.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Bloodhound Files #4: Better Off Undead

Live, die, repeat? …Not exactly. Let’s almost cross a line, then slowly back away and walk off whistling while pretending it never happened with Better Off Undead, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

Dark magic, unknown enemies, monsters of every stripe—FBI profiler Jace Valchek has seen it all. In this bizarre parallel universe, shape-shifting werewolves and blood-thirsty vampires don’t even warrant a raised eyebrow. That is, until Jace has to face what life might look like as one of them …

It starts off as just another run-of-the-mill assignment: to track down the rogue don of a mafia werewolf family before he upsets the delicate balance of the underworld. But Jace wasn’t counting on being bitten…and soon she’s fighting the growing wolf inside her with a startling antidote—vampirism. Stopping a bloody gangland war won’t be easy when Jace is feeling some new, and very inhuman, desires …

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Bloodhound Files series has passed the midpoint, and that means it’s round about time to introduce a big shakeup to the status quo. Some big, irreversible change that emphasizes the narrative’s forward motion. Well, after the first three books in the series had titles consisting of two-word puns, the latter half has switched to a different naming style which incorporates the word “undead”, so it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen. There’s only so long Jace could get away with being a vanilla human on a world filled with vampires and werewolves, two supernatural races known for the contagious nature of their conditions. She already had two close calls in previous books, and escaping a third time is too much for her to hope for. Injured by a werewolf while carrying out a mission, and afterwards bitten by a vampire to counteract the effect, Jace is forced into the position of choosing which type of supernatural to transform into…

…aaaaaand then the narrative decides that oops, no, wait, it changed its mind; having built up a whole story around the dilemma of Jace’s transformation, it’s going to back out at the last minute and punch the ole reset button to keep Jace human. Nothing to see here, nothing important happened today, move on.

Well. On the one hand, Jace’s overarching goal and character motivation is still to leave Thropirelem and return to her own, non-supernatural Earth, and acquiring a supernatural condition would have made that a very complicated prospect. But that’s exactly why it was so interesting. To tease such a major upheaval to the status quo, something which would have such a huge impact on all the characters’ goals and interactions and very natures, and then to just to abort at the last minute: that’s just jerking the readers around. Better not to raise the issue in the first place and just leave me happily assuming that Jace has your standard-issue protagonist Plot Armor than to make a big production about exploring the idea of Jace becoming a werewolf or a vampire only to abruptly kick me back into the status quo. “Wondering how Jace would deal with becoming a supernatural?” the book asks me. “Wondering if she would still want to return to her own Earth, or if she would decide that she belonged in Thropirelem now? Wondering how it would affect her relationship with her friends, her colleagues, her co-workers, and her human-supremacist nemesis Aristotle Stoker? Well, you can go ahead and keep on wondering forever, sucker.”

Given how much I disliked that particular bait-and-switch plotline, it’s hard for me to disentangle it from the rest of the book enough for me to judge the remainder on its own merits. If I’m honest, I have to say that the rest of the book was actually very good. Were it not for the magic reset button return to status quo ending, I really might have enjoyed the book. I certainly did enjoy the story while I was reading it, right up until near the end when I realized that it totally was going to go for the cop-out ending.

In final summary, Better Off Undead ends up being more-or-less decent. It’s just that it had the potential to be so very much more, and the book we actually did get pales in comparison to the hypothetical book we could have gotten where Jace would have ended up as a vampire or a werewolf.

Final Rating: 3/5

Quasing #4: The Days of Tao

When the days are cold and the cards all fold and the saints we see are all made of gold… then the time of Tao is upon us once more. Let’s relive The Days of Tao, by Wesley Chu.

Synopsis:

Cameron Tan wouldn’t have even been in Greece if he hadn’t gotten a ‘D’ in Art History.
Instead of spending the summer after college completing his training as a Prophus operative, he’s doing a study abroad program in Greece, enjoying a normal life – spending time with friends and getting teased about his crush on a classmate.

Then the emergency notification comes in: a Prophus agent with vital information needs immediate extraction, and Cameron is the only agent on the ground, responsible for getting the other agent and data out of the country. The Prophus are relying on him to uncomplicate things.
Easy.

Easy, except the rival Genjix have declared all-out war against the Prophus, which means Greece is about to be a very dangerous place. And the agent isn’t the only person relying on Cameron to get them safely out of the country – his friends from the study abroad program are, too. Cameron knows a good agent would leave them to fend for themselves. He also knows a good person wouldn’t. Suddenly, things aren’t easy at all.

The Days of Tao is the latest in the popular Tao series from award-winning author, Wesley Chu. Following after The Rebirths of Tao, this novella carries on the fast-moving and fun tone of the series.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

How to go about reviewing The Days of Tao? It’s a much shorter piece of work than any of the other books in the Quasing series – a novella rather than a full novel, primarily meant to serve as a bridge between the Tao and Io trilogies rather than telling its own self-contained story. Because of this, it ends up feeling a little incomplete. The ending, in particular, is unsatisfying: much of the plot revolves around a traitor in the group Cameron Tan is attempting to bring to safety, and yet the identity of the traitor is not revealed within this story; it is instead left as a dangling thread to be continued as a very minor subplot in The Rise of Io.

I also have to object to the final paragraph of the synopsis. The novella is fast-moving, yes, but fun? It’s a fairly dark story about a dwindling group of civilians getting picked off one by one as they try to escape enemy territory during a war. The ending is probably the most downbeat of all the books in the Quasing series. I definitely wouldn’t say it’s “fun” in tone. For that matter, while it is “fast-moving”, I can’t really say it “continues” any kind of series trend of being fast-moving, given that two of the three previous books consisting largely of stretched-out training montages. Remember all those pages Roen spent staking out mailboxes? Total, non-stop action!

Still, while it’s a lot shorter than the other Quasing stories, being a novella rather than a novel is just a choice of medium and not something that I’d hold against the actual content of the story. Likewise, bullshit back-cover synopses are nothing new to me, and I’ve seen far worse. And ultimately, the story itself is a good one.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much all there is to say about it. The weak ending means I can’t exactly call it great, but it’s a decent enough final adventure from the POV of Cameron Tan and Tao before we move on to Ella Patel and Io.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Machine Dynasty #2: iD

All meatbags shall now begin the mandatory recital of the official anthem of the Machine Dynasty: I am Machine, I never sleep until I fix what’s broken… Let’s plug into iD, by Madeline Ashby.

Synopsis:

Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption.

Javier’s quest takes him from Amy’s island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

iD faces a pretty fundamental obstacle: how do you make a sequel to vN when vN is a complete self-contained narrative on its own? Amy’s character arc is pretty well finished: she started as a naive and innocent child, and ended up as the god-like Fisher King of her own artificial robot island domain. There’s not much room left for her character to develop from there, nor much chance for an evenly balanced conflict when she is in such a position of power.

The route iD chooses to take it to quickly boot Amy out of the narrative at the beginning, undoing everything she accomplished at the end of the first book in order to re-level the playing field, and make Javier the main character for this one. Unfortunately, I don’t find Javier nearly as interesting or compelling as Amy. Plus, beginning a sequel by completely laying waste to everything that was accomplished in the previous story is a major pet peeve of mine. It’s why I will adamantly argue that Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than Alien 3: however terrible it may be on its own merits, it least it doesn’t open by taking a massive shit on the ending of Aliens.

Oh, while we’re on the subject of other franchise: as before, references to other sci-fi works continue to fly fast and furious, and I did get a moderate thrill from catching nods to the Berserkers (from Berserker by Fred Saberhagen), the Inhibitors (from Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds), and Aggressive Hegemonizing Swarm Objects (from the Culture series by Iain M. Banks), among others.

I am of two minds about the big final revelation that Amy had actually manage to escape the island on her own and never needed Javier’s help. On the one hand, the first novel was all about her growing and maturing into a strong and independent woman; so of course I’m glad she wasn’t actually relegated to damsel-in-distress status, or worse, entirely fridged. On the other hand, though, if Amy was never actually in trouble, then everything Javier did was pointless: Amy had matters well in hand the entire time, so nothing he did or attempted to do was actually relevant to the final outcome. It always bugs me when I finish a book and think that the main character could just as well have stayed home and spent the whole time sitting on the couch drinking beer and everything would still have worked out the same way in the end regardless.

In the end, the conclusion is satisfying enough. But the road to reach it is a lot rockier than it was in the first book; thus, I am unable to rate it as highly.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Bloodhound Files #3: Killing Rocks

You can’t get blood from a stone… not even when killing rocks. Let’s drill into Killing Rocks, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

FBI profiler Jace Valchek’s ticket home from the twisted parallel universe where she’s been called to duty hinges on the capture of serial killer Aristotle Stoker—and an alliance with a sorcerer known as Asher. The problem: Asher has joined forces with some of the most dangerous creatures Jace has ever encountered. The solution: There is none, without Asher’s help…

Jace’s goal seems simple enough—to get her man, like always. But just hours after she arrives in Vegas, she’s abducted…and she isn’t even sure who the real enemy is. Now Jace has to wonder if she’s the predator or the prey in a very dangerous game that could change not only her fate, but the world’s…Meanwhile, a serial killer is still on the loose. And time has already run out…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I think I can safely say that this is the best book yet in The Bloodhound Files.

One the one hand: finally, some long-needed explanation of the setting’s multiverse. There’s the introduction of a third parallel world alongside Jace’s Earth and the other Earth, one with its own rich history and society and magic. Plus, the worlds get convenient nicknames; so from now on, instead of having to say things like “Jace’s Earth and the other Earth”, I can more clearly refer to them as Earth, Thropirelem, and Nightshadow. And that’s not all: there’s also an explanation for why, out of all the people on Earth, it was Jace Valchek in particular who was chosen to be brought to Thropirelem. Good stuff: it makes the narrative seem so much less random and more cohesive.

On the other hand: it’s not just one long exposition-fest. There’s plenty of action as well, with a golem uprising occurring that pits Jace against Charlie Aleph. I was honestly on tenterhooks as to that would turn out: this is the midpoint of the series, and I’ve noticed that the titles of the books in the second half start following a different naming pattern which strongly hints that a major change to the status quo is imminent, so nothing was out of the question. The final climax brought up a little too much wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff for my taste (damn that misbegotten Midnight Sword for turning the standoff between Aristotle and Jace into a scene from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) but ended up being satisfyingly thrilling.

Finally, I just want to say that Azura was the best favorite character in this book. She’s smart, funny, and awesome, and I definitely hope to see her in action again in future stories.

Final Rating: 4/5

Red Eye #6: The Haunting

Some curses grow stronger with time. For instance, the curses uttered by someone reading an increasingly bad book. Let’s curse The Haunting, by Alex Bell.

Synopsis:

Some curses grow stronger with time…

People say that all Cornish inns are haunted, but the Waterwitch’s history is particularly chilling. Built from the salvaged timber of a cursed ship, the guest house’s dark secrets go further back than anyone can remember.

Emma is permanently confined to a wheelchair after an accident at the Waterwitch which took place when she was ten. Seven years later, she decides to return to the place where the awful event occurred. But the ancient inn still has its ghosts, and one particular spirit is more vengeful than ever…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I originally picked up Frozen Charlotte as a stand-alone horror novel; and when I learned it was part of a loose “series”, I didn’t really have any intention of checking out the other books. But then, despite a rocky beginning, Frozen Charlotte actually ended up being pretty decent; and since one other book in the Red Eye lineup was by the same author, I figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out.

Alas, it did hurt. The Haunting wasn’t available from my local library, which meant I had to buy it in order to read it, thereby hurting my wallet; and the narrative stumbled all over itself and collapsed into a pile of disappointment, which hurt my head thinking about how it managed to screw up.

In many ways, The Haunting is the opposite of Frozen Charlotte with its problems. Frozen Charlotte started out weak, but picked up steam as it went on; The Haunting started out promising, but then bungled its potential. Frozen Charlotte had an initially pretty ridiculous horror plot redeemed by the introduction of strong, interesting characters; but the characters are where I think The Haunting went awry. Though I should specify that my problems aren’t with the characters themselves – I liked 2/3 of the viewpoint characters – but with how they’re used, or rather misused, within the structure of the story.

The first character to be introduced is Emma, I and was very excited with her potential as a protagonist at the beginning of the book. A big element of horror is powerlessness, lack of control; so of course it makes sense to put a physically handicapped person in a horror situation. I still haven’t forgiven Ookami Kakushi for including a cute wheelchair-bound girl in a horror series and then doing absolutely nothing to place her in any kind of horror situation. (But then, the list of things I haven’t forgiven Ookami Kakushi for is quite a long one indeed. That show had no idea what it was doing). Perhaps Emma would be character I was waiting for, struggling against her physical limitations as she desperately tries to escape the hotly pursuing horrific doom which is gaining on her by inches…. But despite being the first protagonist introduced, she ends up having the least to do. The witch isn’t targeting her, and she doesn’t have the magic necessary to fight back against the witch – she’s just kind of there sitting on the sidelines.

The second of the main trio, Jem, is the character I have a problem with. He’s the typical idiot in the horror film who refuses to believe that he’s in a horror film despite all evidence to the contrary, resolutely stating “there’s no such things as ghosts” while behind him Linda Blair’s head spins round and round and blood seeps from the walls. Since he refuses to believe in or engage with anything that’s happening, his perspective is effectively useless; yet we’re forced to spend a third of the book looking out through his incredibly myopic eyes. Joy.

Finally, there’s Shell. Now, don’t get me wrong, Shell is very interesting and I like her a lot – probably the most out of the main three. She definitely had the most interesting plotline. However, the way the story’s written just doesn’t work. I think Shell should either be the only POV character in the story, or she should be a non-POV character.

The biggest mistake the story makes is definitely make all three main characters into POV characters. We have the view from inside each of their heads and so know what they’re thinking, which is counterproductive to creating the atmosphere of suspense that a horror book requires. Introducing Shell from Emma’s perspective makes Shell seem incredibly creepy, possibly even possessed by the ghost and the source of everything happening… but then we get to pop on over into Shell’s brain and see that no, she’s totally not evil, and the other protagonists totally should trust her. Thus, when Emma and Jem are all weirded out by Shell and refuse to listen to her, they come off as idiots due to knowledge that we, the reader, possess. If we’d been kept out of Shell’s head, to see and hear only what Emma and Jem saw and heard, then we might agree with them refusing to go along with that the clearly crazy lady says. It’s hard to look at it that way, though, when it’s been made clear in Shell’s POV chapters that Shell is not crazy and is in fact the only one capable of stopping the witch.

Either of the girls could function perfectly decently as a main character. Emma would work fine in a horror story somewhat like this if she was the sole POV character, and we didn’t get to jump into the heads of everyone she met to defuse all tension by confirming that the strange girl babbling about witchcraft is innocent and good at heart; thereby reassuring us that there’s no reason at all to get afraid or feel any form of suspense whenever she appears to be doing spooky things. Likewise, Shell could easily handle a horror book of her own (probably one with more ambiguous supernatural elements, to heighten Shell’s confusion between what’s just hallucination and what’s real supernatural menace) – if she was the sole POV character, with no ability to jump into the head of someone sane and get an unbiased look at what’s definitely real and what’s definitely in her head. It’s just both of them in the same book that doesn’t work, because each removes what would be the source of mystery and suspense in the other’s plotline. To bring things back around to Frozen Charlotte, that book worked because it only had one POV character and everyone else was an enigma. Here, there are no enigmas.

Oh, and there’s a bullshit “OR IS IT!?!?” ending. I don’t particularly hold it against the book, since I’m well used to horror stories having bullshit “or is it” endings and pretty much just ignore the stingers as a matter of course… but it doesn’t exactly do the story any favors, either. If it was counting on a last-minute twist to make me re-evaluate everything that had come before and see it all in a whole new light, well, that didn’t do it.

Some book series grow worse with time, and The Haunting is no worthy successor to Frozen Charlotte.

Final Rating: 2/5

Felix Gomez #5: Werewolf Smackdown

It’s pretty much a cardinal rule of the horror genre that vampires and werewolves never get along. Thus, it was inevitable that Felix Gomex would eventually find himself facing some lupine adversaries. Let’s pit fur against fang with Werewolf Smackdown, by Mario Acevedo.

Synopsis:

A sure-to-be-bloody civil war is brewing between rival werewolf factions, and P.I. Felix Gomex will do anything he can to make sure it doesn’t explode into a vicious battle that engulfs all creatures, living and dead. Between that, the sudden reappearance of an ex-girlfriend, and a gang of other vampires trying to take off his head, this is one rumble even a fanged detective extraordinaire may not be able to handle.

Source: Back of the book (and here’s the Goodreads link)

SPOILERS BELOW

Felix Gomez has stumbled into the center of werewolf war. With two rival alphas gearing up for a conflict that threatens to expose the supernatural world to humans, he finds himself under fire from bot sides – the most dangerous place in any conflict is the middle. The result is a fast-paced, action-packed book that sits near the top of the scale for the Felix Gomez series. No weird alien stuff here; just classic fur-against-fang werewolf/vampire fight scenes.

The book also does nicely in the continuity department, featuring the return of love interest Wendy Teagarden and villain Paxton. Having familiar characters show up again raises the stakes, as it adds a personal investment to a conflict which Felix otherwise wouldn’t have much of a stake in.

Finally, the flow and pacing of the book is much better than the last one. It still has many short chapters, but the placement of the breaks feels much more natural than in the previous book; it doesn’t have that choppy, broken-up feeling.

If the book does have a flaw, it’s in villains. The werewolf alphas never really rise to pose the appropriate level of threat: the characters keep talking them up, but they never actually come off as all that tough, and the resolution comes off as pretty anticlimactic. Paxton, while getting points for being a returning nemesis, is revealed to be so badly disabled from their last encounter that he basically lacks the ability to fight Felix at all anymore; he too is dispatched with hardly any difficulty at all. As the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew put it in Space Mutiny: “And our hero boldly roasts the disabled guy!”

So, yeah, overall, this one was pretty decent. It even had a non-cringeworthy title for a change. Maybe this trend can continue into the next and final installment of the series. Let’s see… Rescue From Planet Pleasure. Sigh. Oh, I have a bad feeling about this…

Final Rating: 3/5

Women of the Otherworld #10.5: Tales of the Otherworld

The Women of the Otherworld have many tales to tell. Let’s gather ‘round and listen to some Tales of the Otherworld, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Have you ever wondered how lone wolf Clayton Danvers finally got bitten by the last thing he ever expected: love? Or how the hot-blooded bad-girl witch Eve Levine managed to ensnare the cold, ruthless corporate sorcerer Kristof Nast in one of the Otherworld’s most unlikely pairings? Would you like to be a fly on the wall at the wedding of Lucas Cortez and Paige Winterbourne as their eminently practical plans are upended by their well-meaning friends? Or tag along with Lucas and Paige as they investigate a gruesome crime that looks to be the work of a rogue vampire?

Now devotees of the Otherworld can share these special moments with some of their favorite characters – as well as discovering deeper insights into the lives of some of the lesser-known players. But even readers new to the Otherworld universe will find much to love in these seven tales of friendship, adventure, and enduring romance. For when the superhuman men and women of the Otherworld set their minds to a task, they do so with fierce passion and an undivided sense of purpose that make them, in the end, very much human.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The central story of this collection is undoubtably “Beginnings”, the story which at long last tells of how Elena and Clay first met and began their romance. After ten whole volumes, it long past time that this important inciting incident in Elena’s life was revealed. And it doesn’t disappoint: despite the fact that the ending is predetermined, it keeps things interesting and engaging by alternating between the viewpoints of Elena and Clay and exploring their inner thoughts and emotions in depth.

The other lengthy story in the collection is “The Case of El Chupacabra”, a well-done supernatural mystery that centers on the tension between the sorcerer Cabals and vampires. It gives a nice character spotlight to the interactions between Savannah and Cassandra, two characters who I wouldn’t mind seeing more often.

The rest of the stories are much shorter, but a few of them still manage to stand out. “Rebirth” fills in some much-lacking information about how Otherworld vampires work, and “Bewitched” covers the relationship between Eve Levine and Kristof Nast. Both were well worth the read.

The remainder of the tales, however, didn’t impress me much. “Wedding Bell Hell” didn’t have any conflict worthy of the title, “Expectations” was too brief and inconsequential to build up much tension, and basically nothing at all happened in “Birthright” and “Ghosts”. There were also some notable omissions: after those fox maidens were introduced in the previous short story collection, I was expecting them to make a reappearance here; but no, they got nary a mention. And of course, with two stories featuring vampires, I am compelled to mention that Women of the Otherworld could really benefit from a vampire point-of-view character. Say, you know who would be a nice fit for that role? Zoe Takano. Just saying.

Yes, it is obvious by now that she was just a one-shot character who is never going to appear again. No, I am still not going to let it go. Not even for an instant. Even if the one who chooses the destiny of the world, Kelley Armstrong, has abandoned her among the souls that cycle through rebirth in the crevice between heaven and earth. The fragment of glory I must gain, more ephemeral and precious than love, is for Zoe to grace the page again. And so, even if I know that only three novels remain in the series and that a miracle will never occur, with certainty, I still cry to the heavens: oh gods, grant me one more appearance by this character now. Oh, powerless ones, oh tools, farewell, go on… Bon ~Karma~.

Whoops. Think I got my Takanos mixed up for a moment there. In any case, since “Beginnings” and “The Case of El Chupacabra” make up the bulk of the book and are both good, it gets a thumbs-up from me.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Bloodhound Files #2: Death Blows

Shutter every window until it’s all blown away; every brick, every board, every slamming door blown away. Until there’s nothing left standing, nothing left of yesterday; every tear-soaked whiskey memory, blown away, blown away. Let’s blow through Death Blows, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

FBI profiler Jace Valchek was pulled into this parallel realm to hunt for Aristotle Stoker, a human serial killer who preys on vampires and werewolves. Now she works for the National Security Agency of the Unnatural States of America – and her boss is a vampire.

At a bizarre crime scene, Jace finds a bloodsucker murdered by magic, fried to the bone and dressed in the costume of the comic book hero the Flash – a character who isn’t supposed to exist here. Comic books have been outlawed for their powers, including crossover spells like the one that transported Jace to this world. Soon, she’s following a trail of dead bodies into the sinister underworld of black-market comics – where a deranged madman gives new meaning to the term “super-villain.”

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With the first book having taken care of the general details about how and why the world diverged from our own, Death Blows is free to delve deeper into its worldbuilding and explore in more detail how one particular aspect of its culture differs from our own: comic books. Far from being an innocuous art for, they are illegal due to their potential as an easily-abused powerful source of ritual magic; and they’re serving as an inspiration for the crimes of the psychopath du jour.

Incidentally, it seems one of my questions from the review of the previous book has been answered. The existence of Jace’s parallel world is more or less common knowledge: summoning people from it might require massive amounts of mystical mojo, but other objects are easier to transfer, and there’s a brisk black-market trade it comic books pilfered from our reality. Odd, but good to know.

Overall, the story told by this book is strong. It didn’t have a single moment of shocking revelation which changed everything, like the reveal of the Elder Gods in Dying Bites, but it had a much faster beginning and remained more engaging throughout. The Bravos were a colorful bunch of characters, and I enjoyed meeting them. It does bug me a little, though, that the series is so fast and loose with its rules as to what’s possible or not with magic. For instance, we’re initially told that while the Quicksilver Kid’s comic book origins say he’s a golem animated with mercury, it’s not actually possible to make a golem that way. However, then the Quicksilver Kid shows up, and it turns out he really is animated with mercury. So when Cassius shoots down Jace’s first theory about the murders by saying that time travel is impossible even with the Midnight Sword, I’m left wondering “impossible as in actually impossible, or impossible as in everyone says it’s impossible but then it goes and happens anyway”?

That issue aside, I enjoyed Death Blows and its many references to the comics of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. This series may have its share of flaws, but I’m still fascinated to see where the next book will take it.

Final Rating: 3/5

White Trash Zombie #5: White Trash Zombie Gone Wild

The FBI’s in town, Saberton is working on a deal with Dr. Charish, a conspiracy is in motion to expose the existence of zombies, the morgue is heightening scrutiny of the bodies Angel has been stealing brains from, and there’s been a new decapitation murder. Looks like Angel picked the wrong week to quit doing zombie super-drugs. Let’s run amok with White Trash Zombie Gone Wild, by Diana Rowland.

Synopsis:

Angel Crawford has buried her loser past and is cruising along in undead high gear–that is, until a murder-by-decapitation sends her on a hazardous detour. As Angel hunts for the killer, she uncovers a scheme that would expose zombies to the public and destroy the life she’s built, and she’s determined not to rest until she finds out who’s behind it.

Soon she’s neck-deep in lies, redneck intrigue, zombie hunters, and rot-sniffing cadaver dogs. It’s up to her to unravel the truth and snuff out the conspiracy before the existence of zombies makes headline news and she’s outed as a monster.

But Angel hasn’t quite escaped the pill-popping ghosts of her past–not with an illicit zombie pharmaceutical at her fingertips. Good thing she’s absolutely sure she can handle the drug’s unpredictable side effects and still take down the bad guys…or maybe she’s only one bad choice away from being dead meat–for real this time.

Angel knows a thing or two about kicking ass, but now the ass she needs to kick might be her own.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With this book, the White Trash Zombie series has delivered its best installment yet. After last time’s brief action-thriller excursion, it’s back to a mystery-based style reminiscent of the first book. There are a multitude of plotlines – the Tribe and Saberton are both hunting for the ever-manipulative Dr. Kristi Charish, a film at a zombie-themed festival includes actual zombie footage which threatens to expose the Tribe’s secrets, FBI agents are sniffing around mortuaries, a zombie hunter-style decapitation murder has taken place – and with a bunch of recurring characters suddenly behaving suspiciously, it’s a puzzle as to who’s involved with what and which threads tie into the tapestry of a greater conspiracy. Top it all off with Angel struggling with her addiction issues, and the result is a book which remains intense and interesting from front to back.

I especially appreciated all the new character development. In addition to the aforementioned focus on Angel’s resurfacing drug problem, a whole lot of recurring extras are brought to the foreground and given additional characterization and plot relevance: Randy, Nick, and Prejean all get a turn to step into the spotlight. It makes the world feel richer to have them explored in depth and made more involved with the narrative.

Finally, there’s the ending and its sense of forward momentum. The status quo can only remain in place for so long before it becomes dull; but the times they are a changin’, and this book implies the groundwork is being laid for a big shakeup. The Tribe dodged a bullet this time; but as Angel points out, they can’t remain secret forever, and it’s time for them to start planning how best to come out to the world. Hopefully, unlike the fake-out title of White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, this is a sign of real major change coming to the White Trash Zombie universe.

White Trash Zombie Gone Wild is the strongest entry yet in this ongoing series, and I don’t hesitate to rank it a cut above the other books.

Final Rating: 4/5