Tag Archives: contemporary fantasy

Spider’s bite (Elemental assassin series)

Spider’s bite / Jennifer Estep

The Elemental assassin series occupies the middle ground between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Set in a vaguely defined southern town, the series features intense action, scenes of cookery described in vivid detail, and fairly graphic violence.

Plot summary

Gin Snow, alias “The Spider” juggles her career as one of the south’s most highly sought after assassins with working in her adoptive father and handler’a barbecue restaurant.

Betrayed by her employer on what was supposed to be her last job (at least for the time being) Gin embarks on a quest for revenge that will last for several books and that will eventually reveal the true identity of her parents’ murderer.

Also people have magic powers and there are the obligatory vampires.

So how is it?

It’s fun in a totally disposable kind of way, despite the terrible name of the series. It’s one of those series that I’ll grab whenever I can’t find enough books at the library, but it’s not really something I’d actively seek out.

I find myself coming back to it significantly more often than I do similar series, in part because despite the body count the series never gets really stressful. It’s dark but not disturbing and the presence of magical healing powers goes a long way to reduce the sense of peril.

These are books I’ll finish in a day on my commute. I’m five or six books in at this point, having just finished the “parent murderer” story arc (the identity of whom was painfully obvious from the beginning).

Estep does a decent job of inserting the sequel hooks gradually, where elements that go relatively unremarked in earlier books are built upon over time to make the whole thing feel more connected than some series. It’s not exactly a monster of the week series – more like the mythos episodes of the X-files, where the monster of the week is there but is a lieutenant or other relation to the Big Bad. 

The romance element is present but follows the urban fantasy arc of building over the course of the series rather than the historical romance method of each installment featuring a different family member. I’d still call it urban fantasy but some of the romance novel writing style and plotting is definitely there.

The violence isn’t as graphic as, say, Nalini Singh’s work, but the romantic elements also aren’t as intense. The Elemental assassin books are plot driven first and foremost, so while it has definite crossover appeal paranormal romance purists would be better off reading Singh.

Recommendation

It’s a perfectly serviceable series but not a first line recommendation. Worth reading, even if Gin’s competence level varies wildly from scene to scene. Definitely a go-to recommendation for crossover paranormal romance/urban fantasy fans but not one with much appeal outside the genre.

For those who don’t mind the violence but want more romance/character development I’d recommend Nalini Singh’s Angel’s kiss.

For those who would prefer less emphasis on the romance I’d recommend, as usual, the October Daye series. 

For those who like the tone of this but are less thrilled by the magic, I’d recommend Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy

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Deadtown

Deadtown / Nancy Holzner

Based on the title, cover art, and promotional quote on the cover* (something about “a great new take on zombies”) I thought Deadtown was going to be a zombie apocalypse book. I was wrong.

It’s actually a transparent, heavy-handed civil rights metaphor.

*Yes prescriptivists, it should be a “quotation” not a “quote” because one is a noun and the other is a verb but 1) this is my blog and I do what I want 2) linguistic prescriptivism is really just the slavish devotion to a static form of an evolving language at some arbitrary point in the past that even then didn’t reflect English as she is spoke and finally 3) my academic background is heavily built around Classical Chinese which doesn’t distinguish between nouns and verbs so that has influenced my English to some extent

Plot summarie

Deadtown is a bük abowt a Welsh shapeshifter hu hunts demons (done taking a stand on the linguistics issue now). Set in a World where Supernatural Creatures live openly but have almost no civil rights and are forced to live in a ghetto called Deadtown, Victory must balance her boyfriend’s civil rights campaign, shepherding the world’s most irresponsible zombie, and saving all of Boston from the demon what killed her father.

So how is it?

Heavy handed but not terrible.

The civil rights metaphor lacks the unfortunate implications of the social aspects of the Golgotham series, but it’s not handled with much subtlety or class. Like, in comparison X-Men is a masterwork of subtle social criticism. If you’ve seen the DystopianYA twitter (and if you haven’t, go check it out it’s amazing), the metaphor isn’t any less heavy handed here. Sometimes it ends up seriously stretching the willing suspension of disbelief (police refuse to prevent the kidnapping of a young girl who looks human, has no supernatural powers, and who is genetically indistinguishable from a normal human, all because there’s a possibility that she might not be human).

Other than that it’s not bad. I was interested enough to check out the sequel. The zombies really aren’t that unique as far as urban fantasy goes despite the cover’s claims, but it’s not a “zombie” book. The action is competent and Victory is a decent character, although her continued support of her apprentice in the face of her constant life-threatening failures to exercise the slightest but of judgment and her continued relationship with urban fantasy’s worst “Bad Boyfriend who is only there until the real love interest shows up and who will stick around long enough to force the protagonist to choose between the jerk with no redeeming qualities and the one she’ll end up choosing”.

Recommendation

It’s perfectly serviceable but flawed enough that it’s not something I’m likely to recommend. Maybe as a last ditch recommendation for a genre fan who has already read everything else but that’s it. The Elemental Assassin series (horrible name aside) does pretty much everything this series does but better (aside from being set in Boston) so I’d recommend those for somebody looking for a more action packed series, or the Edie Spence books for somebody interested in the “let’s stick all the Universal monsters in one book” schtick. I’d recommend the InCryptid series before any of the above though.

The hum and the shiver (Tufa books)

The hum and the shiver / Alex Bledsoe

Still without a computer so things will continue to be somewhat bare bones.

The hum and the shiver is one of those books that I came to with virtually no expectations. It had been recommended to me by a family member but it took me a whole to find it (mostly because I kept forgetting to look for it). Once I did get ahold of it, all I could remember was that it was set in Appalachia and focused on an isolated ethnic group. And music was involved somehow.

I think that coming in with no idea of what to expect was an important part of why I liked it so much, so I’m going to be a little more cryptic here. I’ll be taggin more sparsely as well to avoid revealing any secrets.

I read it in a single night while my spouse was out of town, listening to Tre Lux on repeat and periodically interrupted by a cat who is obsessed with curling up in the pages of hardcover books.

Eventually, I grabbed a decoy book so I could read in peace.

I think at least some of my enjoyment of this book stems from the really pleasant reading experience. I’ve been wanting to reread it lately but have been putting it off until I have the house to myself for the night.

Plot summary

In an isolated Appalachian county, a war hero returns home after injury and imprisonment. A young pastor attempts to get to know the strange people living there. A tabloid reporter comes looking for something he can’t really define.

So how is it?

It’s really good, if I haven’t made it clear enough already.

The hum and the shiver is a different kind of contemporary fantasy novel. The setting makes calling it “urban fantasy” inappropriate, even if that is the more common term.

This isn’t one of those series with at least one new entry a year. It’s not a book about saving the world or defeating monstrous evil.

In fact, for most of the book it’s barely recognizable as a fantasy novel. The elements are there, but the magic is closer to the magic of Tolkien’s elves or hobbits. It’s subtle, not even recognized as magic by most, but it’s there.

The hum and the shiver is a quiet book. Like the slow paced lifestyle of its characters, it’s not in a hurry to reach a spectacular set piece with a triumphant showdown.

Bledsoe creates a world firmly rooted in its characters. The major theme is self discovery, where the visitors and inhabitants face truths that they hid from themselves or that were hidden from them. There are no great surprises here for the reader, especially for readers with a background in the proper folklore, but the book isn’t boring nonetheless.

Recommendation

The hum and the shiver is a great book. Still, it serves a drastically different audience than most of the urban fantasy I’ve reviewed here. The sedate pace and lack of two fisted action contrasts pretty seriously with things like The Dresden files.

It’s still worth a read. Bledsoe is an expert at combining “literary” and “popular” entertainment (Dark Jenny, for example, which features a knight named Bob but also delves pretty deeply into an analysis of Arthurian mythology) and so the twitchy video games and action movies type might not get their kicks here but broader minded readers should enjoy.

I write a lot about the appeal of fantasy or science fiction novels to those who “don’t read” that stuff. The shiver and the hum is probably one of the better books for those readers. Tolkien via Dungeons and Dragons is nowhere to be found, and the heavy character focus and introspective tone should appeal to fans of the “white problems” novel. (I think fans of those books call it “the great American novel” but I like my description better)

Right hand magic (Golgotham series)

Right hand magic / Nancy A. Collins.

Right hand magic is the first book in the Golgotham trilogy. The basic premise is that supernatural creatures live uneasily alongside humanity. Golgotham is the name of the neighborhood in New York City where most of these creatures live.

Brief plot summary

Tate Donovan is a sculptor seeking inspiration and a cheap place to live, preferably one as far as possible from her ex. Initially excited by the prospect of living in Golgotham, especially with her attractive Kymeran landlord Hexe, she soon finds herself forced to contend with Golotham’s version of the mob.

So how is it?

It’s certainly readable, but it’s not great. The premise is more well developed than I was expecting, but there are a few major flaws. The biggest one is the incredibly forced slang, which is more silly than street.

Beyond that, the Golgotham trilogy is really one slightly overlong paranormal romance novel that doesn’t realize it’s supposed to be one.  The plot gets more development than the relationships between the characters, and it’s significantly less intense than your average romance novel. 

In some ways it’s similar to Laura Resnick’s work (normal human in New York City gets in over their head dealing with supernatural phenomena and organized crime) but Resnick’s work is intentionally goofy whereas Collins can’t seem to decide whether this is supposed to be a gritty series or not.

One thing I was slightly uncomfortable with is that it’s possible to read the second and third books as a defense of gentrification. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s largely a plot device for putting another obstacle in Tate’s way, but there are some unfortunate implications there.

Still, it’s self contained and complete in three fairly short volumes.

Recommendation

Honestly, the Golgotham books are a little bit like a cross between the InCryptid series and the Esther Diamond series, only less demanding than either. It’s a good bet for fans of those books looking for something new, but it’s more of a stopgap recommendation while lookin for better things than it is a series worth actively seeking out.

Disappearing nightly

Disappearing nightly / Laura Resnick

(I am currently experiencing some hardware issues so a link will hopefully be forthcoming)

Disappearing nightly is the first book featuring Esther Diamond, aspiring actress struggling to make ends meet in New York City. It’s one of those series where it’s unclear which book is first and so I accidentally read the second one first not that I’m bitter about that or anything.

Brief plot summary

When the female lead  of the off-Broadway show Sorcerer! disappears for real during the disappearing act, her understudy Esther Diamond is understandably nervous about stepping into the role. When a mysterious stranger appears with dire warnings, it’s up to Esther and an eccentric group of allies including a rhinestone cowboy and a team of enthusiastic drag queens to figure out who is really behind these disappearances.

So how is it?

It’s not that great, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s goofy and fun in a cheap romantic comedy kind of way. Esther is essentially a stock character: Jewish girl comes to New York City to make her dreams of stardom come true. She’s love able and klutzy but finds it easy to make friends with a wide variety of people.

There are a couple of things that distinguish this series from other urban fantasy … series.

First, the basic trope common to most urban fantasy is that the protagonist has some special power. Tobey is a changeling, Harry Dresden is a wizard, etc.  Esther Diamond is just a normal aspiring actor. While the people she interacts with have all sorts of mystical powers, she remains (at least as far as I have read) a regular person who succeeds with pluck and determination.

The second distinguishing trait is the generally irreverent tone. While it’s not totally unheard of in the genre, Resnick’s work is notably sillier than other “light” urban fantasy. Slapstick humor is pretty commonplace, and the plots themselves are pretty goofy. 

One of the things I like about these books is that the jokes are more than just simple wink-wink nudg-nudge references to other media and/or “look at how self aware I am!”

Not that I don’t enjoy that kind of humor, it’s just nice to see something more upfront.

One possible stumbling block for readers is that sometimes Esther falls a little bit too much into the stereotypical romantic comedy leading lady role. Think ice cream and weight complaints territory. She never goes full on Cathy but it’s still worthy of more than a few eye rolls.

In conclusion…

I’ve read the first three books in the series so far and I’ll probably continue to pick it up. I tend to use it as a palate cleanser in between books from more serious series.

As to recommendations, this is one that doesn’t really require any previous investment in the genre and could definitely appeal to readers who don’t normally “do” fantasy. It’s light and silly and there’s a definite lack of convoluted mythology that can be a barrier to entry in the genre.

Black wings

Black wings / Christina Henry

 

Luckily Black wings is the name of the first book and the name of the series, so no confusion here.

Black wings sits somewhere between the InCryptid books and the Ghost finders books for me. It’s an interesting premise but there are some devices that I’m not a huge fan of that prevent me from really getting into the series.

Brief plot summary

Maddy is a grim reaper, charged with ferrying the deceased to the afterlife. She’s also the landlord of an apartment building in Chicago, struggling to balance her responsibilities as a psychopomp with the need to make ends meet. Finally finding a new tenant in Gabriel Angeloscuro, Maddy will soon discover a long-buried secret about her family and the true origin of the grim reapers.

Continue reading Black wings

Ghost of a chance (Ghost finders)

Ghost of a chance / Simon R. Green

And now we go from a series I enjoyed to a book that I find it really hard to say anything positive about.

Simon R. Green is apparently more well known for his Nightside series, which I’ve never read. I picked up this one instead of the first Nightside book because the fact that Ghost of a chance was the first in the series was printed on the cover. Urban fantasy publishers: PLEASE do this. More than once I’ve started halfway through a series because it was nigh-impossible to tell which book was first so I grabbed the one in the worst condition. Historical romance books are even worse, as I’ve seen some authors (Laura Lee Guhrke, for example) where the books in the series are listed in a different order in each book.

Please quit doing this, publishers. My public library occasionally numbers things in-series on their spines, but they aren’t particularly consistent about it and it appears to be more common with hardcovers and or/trades than it does mass market paperbacks. The least you could do is list the series in order on the fly-leaf.

Back to this book in particular.

Brief plot summary

JC Chance, Melody Chambers, and Happy Jack Palmer are a team of paranormal investigators working for the Carnacki Institute. Tasked with investigating an apparently simple haunting in the London Underground, things become more complicated when a team from their arch-rivals, the Crowley Project, arrives.

Continue reading Ghost of a chance (Ghost finders)

Discount armageddon (InCryptid series)

Discount armageddon / Séanan McGuire

I’ve already reviewed Séanan McGuire’s October Daye series, so I figured I’ll start my massive collection of urban fantasy posts with her “other” series.

Honestly, I wasn’t super excited about this one, for whatever reason, but I had read all of the available October Daye books so I decided to pick up the first book in the InCryptid series.

Plot summary

The InCryptid novels (there are some short stories but I ha’n’t read ’em) follow the exploits of the Price family: cryptozoologists and self-appointed wardens of the American cryptid community.

Discount armageddon follows Verity Price, Latin ballroom dancer and traceuse, who has moved to New York City in an attempt to prove to her family that she can make it as a professional dancer. Her career aspirations are complicated by the appearance of a member of the Covenant of St. George, an international group devoted to exterminating all cryptid life.

Continue reading Discount armageddon (InCryptid series)

Urban fantasy bonanza : introduction

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve mostly been reading urban/contemporary fantasy lately. Since it’s fairly fresh I figured I’d collocate these reviews for easy comparison. Some of the posts I’ve already written about books in the genre are going to be retroactively added to the series, but I’ll be writing all-new posts for each series and/or book.

 

Here’s a preview of what I’ll be doing, in no particular order:

The InCryptid novels by Séanan McGuire – After reading all of the October Daye books I decided to move on to these. They’re interesting, but I think I like the October Daye series better.

Black wings by Christina Henry – The protagonist is a grim reaper/landlord. Interesting premise but the writing didn’t really grab me.

Ghost of a chance by Simon R. Green – This book was laughably bad.

Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick – Not a great work of literature but fun in a ridiculous kind of way. I realize that this isn’t the first in the series but for some reason urban fantasy and historical romance publishers LOVE to make it as hard as possible to figure out which book is actually the first.

Gregor the overlander by Suzanne Collins – this book made absolutely no impression on me.

The hum and the shiver by Alex Bledsoe – This one was REALLY good although the “twist” was pretty obvious from page 1.

Singer of souls by Adam Stemple – I’ve brought this one up before – a good story brought down by a horrifying ending.

Nightlife by Rob Thurman – This book was straight-up terrible.

The Golgotham series by Nancy A. Collins – Not a terrible series, it had its ups and downs but I actually read the whole thing.

Half-resurrection blues by Daniel José Older – Can’t wait for more.

The iron hunt by Marjorie M. Liu – I’m on the fence about this one. The second book in the series is the next one in my queue so maybe I’ll have stronger opinions after that.

The black London series by Caitlin Kittredge – It’s decent, but borrows way too much from the early Hellblazer stories.

Dying bites by D.D. Barant – Tonal whiplash all through this one. Not sure if I’ll read more.

Magic to the bone by Devon Monk – a more unique premise than most of the ones on this list, I’ll be checking out the next one in the series the next time I’m at the library. [Update: the only book in the series that my library doesn’t have is the second one.]

Dead to me by Anton Strout – Haven’t read this yet, it’s in my queue after the sequel to The iron hunt. [Update: enjoyable]

 

So that’s the preliminary booklist. It’s possible I’ll add more eventually. It’s also possible that I’ll end up doing some  other genre stuff in between so it doesn’t get too monotonous.

 

[Updated to add the following]

Spider’s bite by Jennifer Estep – incredibly violent but I’m still going to check out the sequel

 

 

Krampus : the Yule lord

Krampus: the Yule lord / Brom

Krampus : the Yule lord is another work by artist turned author Brom. Along the same lines as The child thief, Brom takes a well known story, adds the “lost” pagan version, and infuses it with a degree of moral ambiguity.

So, here’s a Christmas season post that’s actually about “Christmas”. Sort of.

Brief plot summary

Musician Jesse is miserable. After failing to get his daughter the Christmas present she wanted, Jesse witnesses what appears to be a fight between Santa Claus and a small group of mysterious attackers. Discovering that the battle sent Santa’s sack through the roof if his trailer, Jesse soon becomes embroiled in a centuries long conflict between Krampus and Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas.

Continue reading Krampus : the Yule lord