Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Working stiff (Revivalist novels)

Working stiff / Rachel Caine

The most disturbing book I have ever read was Maxime Chattam’s Prédateurs. Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy comes in second.

Also, it’s a romance?

Plot summary (in which a first chapter plot twist is revealed)

Bryn David, ex-military, is the new funeral home director at a fancy (possibly Californian*) funeral home.

Unfortunately for her, after discovering that her new employer is selling a mysterious drug out of the basement. After being murdered to keep the secret she discovers that she has been brought back from the dead by the drug, but there’s a catch: if she doesn’t get a fresh injection every 24 hours, her body will start to rot.

Joining up with the dashing Patrick McAllister, Bryn must now fight back against a major pharmaceutical company’s sinister plans while trying to find a cure for her condition.

*whaaaa? To get there, you gotta take the 405 to the Brigadoon and them take a u-turn to get on I-96 to go past Plaga Arroyo and then you head west on the North-South tollway. /joke

So how is it?

Disturbing, but not consistently so. There’s some over the top action and some graphic violence, but the way the people who go without their injections start to decompose while still fully conscious is the part that almost made me give up on the series. There’s a reveal towards the end of the first book that was especially hard to take.

I did read all three, and they are interesting for the way they don’t use many of the traditional urban fantay trappings. There’s no magic, no paranormal activity of any kind. It’s all about the nanites here (which amounts to the same thing but at least it’s not another vampire book).

At its core, Working stiff is a slow building zombie story where the zombies are fully conscious “living” things. Most of the classic zombie tropes appear at some point, but each one gets enough of a twist that the series does feel unique.

It’s an interesting series but not for the easily disturbed. 

Below I reveal a later plot twist so skip the next sentence if you want to be surprised

It says something, either about the series or about my own weirdness, that the introduction of the “flesh eating ravenous cannibals who are compelled to spread their affliction” was a relief because cannibalism in protagonists is less disturbing than other things that were going on.

(Yeah that was a long sentence)

Recommendation

Because of how disturbing I found it it’s not a book I’m likely to recommend. If I did, it would pretty much only be to people who enjoy both paranormal romance and incredibly violent horror movies. Fans of Antichrist could certainly handle this (although it lacks the “arty” aspects). 

The only time I’d recommend it is for fans of Nalini Singh, who seems to do the hardcore horror/romance genre blending fairy well.

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

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.

Nightshifted (Edie Spence novels)

Nightshifted / Cassie Alexander

True story: every time I see the cover of this book I initially misread it as “Nightshift Ted”, which I assume would be a contemporary fantasy novel about a janitor who is forced to clean up after the apparently mandatory vampire/werewolf conflict.

It’s actually about Edie Spence, nurse working the night shift in the … Supernatural ward of the county hospital.

I think there’s definitely something to a satirical urban fantasy about the put upon janitor of the supernatural.

Brief plot summary

Edie Spence works the night shift on Y4, the hidden ward of the county hospital where the werewolves and vampires and zombies go. Attempting to fulfil a dying patient’s last wish, Edie finds herself over her head and involved in some sort of conspiracy or something involving vampire child pornography (seriously).

So how is it?

Just okay, but I keep checking the series out from the library so it has something to keep me reading.

My immediate impression was that the author has obviously read Nightwatch and played Vampire: The masquerade.

Since then I’ve realized that it could just be that she’s mining from the same cultural well, but the nature of the supernatural detente seems reminiscent of Nightwatch and the structure of vampire society is remarkably similar to V:tM. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I have I be honest; the vampire vs werewolf plot is one that holds no interest for me. In fact, despite my love of urban fantasy the very presence of vampires and/or werewolves (especially werewolves) is an immediate strike. It’s a setup I just don’t find compelling. I’ve been reading more vampire books lately but as far as urban fantasy sub genres go the only one I like less than vampires is werewolves.

Coupled by the fact that Cassie Alexander is a practicing nurse, so the whole thing has that “nursey” tone* (not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best family members are nurses), this book was facing an uphill battle to get me to enjoy it.

*I don’t really have a better way of putting this. There’s just a way of talking and writing that nurses seem to have. Spend some time browsing Pinterest if you don’t know what I mean, there’s plenty of study guides and inspirational material for nurses and it all has that same feel. My inability to articulate this is one of the many reasons I am not even a semiprofessional critic.

I did end up enjoying Nightshifted. Its saving grace was that it didn’t focus too heavily on the minutiae of the supernatural creatures and focused more on the characters and their relationships. That it wasn’t chock a block full of vampires lurking around being sexy and mysterious helped a lot. The character “Grandfather” helped too.

One thing: my library separates mass market paranormal romance (shelving it with romance) and urban fantasy (shelving it with sff – although 75% of the mass market sff at my library is urban fantasy). This series is with the sff stuff but on the paranormal romance – urban fantasy continuum Nightshifted is closer to paranormal romance, both in style and in content. So be aware of that.

It does make me wonder: where’s all the queer paranormal romance? Everything I’ve read in the genre has been super heteronormative. Kind of disappointing.

Recommendation

It’s not bad but I wouldn’t go out of y way to recommend it.

It’s good paranormal romance, an if you’re in to the “human woman gets involved with vampires/werewolves” style of paranormal romance this is a definite recommend.

For urban fantasy fans it’s more of a tentative recommendation. I’ll quantify it with a checklist below. Add/subtract what applies to you and see if this is the right series for you

[+1] fan of urban fantasy

[+2] fan of paranormal romance

[+1] fan of the vampire/werewolf thing

[+1] you’re a nurse

[+1] liked Nightwatch but thought it was too scary

[+1] prefer a “normal” human protagonist

[+1] fan of White Wolf RPGs

[-1] hate paranormal romance

[-1] dislike explicit sex scenes

[-1] tired of the “old Universal monster movies” approach to urban fantasy

[-1] looking for a kick butt heroine and/or extended Hollywoodesque action sequences

[-1] looking for something funny, light, or nonviolent


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)

Singer of souls

Singer of souls / Adam Stemple

And now, back to urban fantasy, but first an administrative note:

It’s probably going to be at least two weeks until I have access to a computer again. As a result I may be deviating from my normal schedule somewhat and the reviews will be a little more bare bones for a while.

Back to the book.

Singer of souls is an urban fantasy novel in the “music has magical powers” and faerie subgenres. Stemple is the son of famed author Jane Yolen, and her influence is definitely visible. Still, I have some serious problems with this book that make it very hard to recommend.

Plot summary

Douglas is a street musician and recovering drug addict. In an attempt to leave his old life behind, he moves to Edinburgh to live with his grandmother. 

Told he must support himself, Douglas distinguishes himself as a busker by creating songs that tell the life stories of whomever is willing to pay. Faeries get involved.

So how is it?

It starts out great but the ending is horrifying. 

Singer of souls does a good job of portraying Douglas as a flawed person sincerely trying to better himself but who struggles with temptation. The famously amoral sidhe are portrayed convincingly, and even the Seelie come across as far more dangerous than in most modern novels.

It was initially a book I was happy to recommend, but there’s a sudden shift towards the end where the book turns grotesquely violent and then Douglas makes a discovery and the whole thing jumps the rails and it becomes a really disturbing story about the depths of human cruelty. 

It’s not just that the tone shifts, the characterization takes a drastic turn and suddenly characters are acting completely differently for no real reason.

I’m guessing that it’s Stemple’s attempt to write a cautionary tale about the abuse of power, or its corruptin nature, but it’s not handled well. If the transition was more gradual (which would require a much longer book, this one is really short) it might work but as published the ending made me feel literally ill.

By the end of the novel, there are no even remotely sympathetic characters left. I’m not going to put it in the “terrible books” category in deference to how good the beginning is, but it’s only a whisper from there.

Recommendation

Only read the first 150 pages or so.

The content at the end (including torture and sexual servitude) is going to be a major stumbling block here.

Good for angsty teens looking for something with shock value, or for those with stron stomaches who don’t mind a drastic change in tone.

Alternative recommendations:

Rosemary an rue / Séanan McGuire

War for the oaks / Emma Bull – the gold standard for musician meets the fae novels. It turns out Bull was in a band with Stemple so interpret that however you like.

Thomas the rhymer – just because. Does the whole dark faerie tale thing ifinitely 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)