The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis (Review)

Standalone (?)

Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Vampires

Titan Books; May 25, 2021

413 pages (ebook)

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4.25 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Prague, 1868.

The quiet streets of Prague hide a secret, one that haunts these passages in the dead of night. Ancient and mythic beasts lurk in the shadows, preying upon anyone unfortunate enough to be out past sunset. And only those paid to bring light to the city’s dark stand between the monsters and their prey.

Domek Myska is a lamplighter—a profession both dedicated to bring light to the darkened streets of Prague, but also to protect its citizens from the evil that walks it. With the advent of gas lamps, the lamplighter presence in Prague has changed. While the lamps themselves keep the night at bay better and longer, fewer souls are required to keep this army of lights burning. And where there are fewer lamplighters, there are more monsters. With little to no backup, Domek is forced to rely on his own wit and skill to survive the night, with stakes of hawthorn and daggers of silver to help even the odds. But when he discovers a strange jar one night on the corpse of a pijavice (a vampire), the young lamplighter discovers there’s more renaissance in the city then just that of gas lamps.

Lady Ora Fischerová is a permanent fixture amongst the city’s upperclass, but an enigmatic one at that. She’s known as an eccentric widow—having lost her husband a decade prior—albeit a beautiful one who hardly looks as though she’s aged since his passing. That’s because Ora harbors a secret of her own, hidden beneath layers only won by coin and eccentricity. She’s a pijavica, but lives a low-key life for one of her kind preferring venison and pork blood to that of humans. But while she calls some humans friend, some others would only see her as the demon that hunts in the night. Enter Domek, and a mutual hot-blooded attraction between the two. Neither knows about the other’s secret, but with the way things are going, it won’t be long before they find out. And what will happen when the cards fall—will either survive to see another sunrise, or will Prague itself fall into eternal darkness?

For the jar, and its wisp occupant, Kája, represent a new weapon—a hope and danger both. But could these fortunes be reversed? And whom (if anyone) would Domek trust to make that distinction?

With an atmosphere drenched in darkness and steeped in blood, The Lights of Prague represents the best of historical fantasy, combining a killer story, deep and meaningful characters, with a lush if claustrophobic setting. The backdrop of 1860’s Prague was breathtakingly beautiful: a city on the cusp of change from fire to gas; a city drenched in shadow but clinging to the light; a city built on the ruins of another that came before it, with the beings of the night lurking within. From tight back alleys to gilded opera halls to the mansions of the elite to the slums of the Jewish quarter, Nicole Jarvis sets the stage incredibly well! If not for the strength of its characters, I’d say the setting was the story’s strongest asset.

Prague did not know Domek, did not need him, but his life was overlaid on the ancient streets in watercolor, the patterns sheer and impermanent.

But the characters are quite well done as well. Both Domek and Ora are well-fleshed, with their own history and motivations, intentions and ideals—so that while they may want in one another’s pants and/or gowns, they don’t necessarily want the same thing for Prague. And while the two may fall on the same side now and then, they definitely aren’t that way all the time. I loved their interactions—be they hot and heavy, violent, or even casual—and it was this that kept the story from ever feeling too weighed down or stagnant, even toward the end when the action-sequences sometimes threaten to override the plot. While Domek isn’t the brightest tool in the river, he makes up for it with his deep- and well-thought-out plans, his ingenuity and stubbornness. Ora’s just pretty amazing—no notes! But where these two are so strong, I found the supporting cast was a bit hit and miss. Some characters seemed deep enough to carry their own POVs, while others felt too hollow to be little more than set dressing. The POVs definitely carry the load, however, so there’s relatively little to complain about, story-wise.

TL;DR

1860’s Prague provides an incredible backdrop for any fantasy adventure, at least when one plays it up as well as Nicole Jarvis does. The city was resplendent, despite the story mostly taking place in the dead of night, where the streets are quiet, dark, and claustrophobic, and the atmosphere one of tension. While the story might get a bit iffy later on, the interactions between the two POV leads Domek and Ora provide more than enough of a reason to press on. Turns out, the characters are just as impressive as the world-building. Come for the vampires and dark atmosphere, stay for the romance, action and characters. Heartily recommended!

I’m not sure if The Lights of Prague will remain a standalone or spawn a series, but the ending sets up a possible future if the author decides to go down that road. Best just to read it now.

Peace Talks – by Jim Butcher (Review)

Dresden Files #16

Urban Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace; July 14, 2020

352 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit, Ace (Roc) and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I was fortunate enough to be granted a very late ARC of Peace Talks, arriving shortly after I’d given up hope on one, and right in the middle of my time reading of Ashes of the Sun (which was AMAZING—expect a review July 19-21). Since this is the latest book of an extended series, expect a pretty short blurb. Now, either you’re caught up, or you’re not, but if you aren’t… Warning: Unless you’re all caught up on the series, there may be spoilers below.

In the aftermath of the events of Skin Game—the daring heist that both created a new Knight of the Cross and further damaged Harry’s relationship with a few of his not-quite-enemies—Peace Talks begins.

Peace Talks features what you may expect; the supernatural nations have agreed to meet and discuss the path forward, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re coming to Chicago. As Chicago’s biggest beat-wizard, Harry Dresden has been assigned to the White Council’s security detail, to make sure the negotiations run smoothly. Furthermore, Mab—Queen of the Winter Court of Fae—is acting as host, forcing Dresden to pull double-duty.

Featured players include the White Council, both Fae Courts, the White Vampires, Vadderung, Marcone, Ferrovax, the Forest People, the Fomor, and a number of others [note: if you don’t recognize anyone of these, don’t panic. Simply refer to either of the links featured later, or prepare to abuse Google. Either or]. But with the sheer amount of heavy hitters in town for the summit, tensions are sure to be high. And Harry must ensure that no tempers boil over during the talks. Not even his own.

Yet this is easier said than done. And with mistrust flying around the Council, Harry is on thinner ice than ever before. The fate of the White Council, of the supernatural world, the fate of Chicago, even of the world itself—may hang in the balance. And of course Harry Dresden’s right in the middle of it.

Okay, so by Book 16, we’ve picked up quite a few characters. It’d been a while since I immersed myself in any Dresden book, so I had some trouble remembering who was who. Thus I would definitely suggest, if not a reread, then a quick read of a character cheat-sheet [wiki] [fandom]. Additionally, if you’ve not read the ‘Working for Bigfoot’ stories (I believe they’re also included in the 2nd story anthology), this would be the time to do it, as otherwise you’ll have more than one “who dis?” moment.

I loved the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the universe, and my love-affair with Harry picked up just where it left off. It’s been six long years, but it was as if no time had passed at all. The story, the setting, the… nostalgia were all superb—with but one caveat. I only had one real issue with the book, but otherwise totally adored it. The world-building and lore by this point are incredibly deep and drawn out, and not only does Peace Talks add to a packed library, it expands what we knew about so many bit characters, enemies, allies, and companions.

The largest caveat in the story is actually a pretty big piece of it. Or, it SHOULD HAVE BEEN a big piece of it. Due to spoilers, I can’t say what it is, just that it’s fairly noticeable. If this book had come earlier in the series, this mystery would’ve been central to the plot. But coming after a six-year hiatus, Butcher has simply brushed it to the side. It’s not so much that the author’s priorities have changed—it’s that Harry’s have. And so I’m going to give this a bit of a pass. A BIT of one. Because this mystery still should’ve enjoyed a decent amount of screen time. But it didn’t. And it didn’t for no particular reason. Harry dismisses it early on, touches on it only briefly later, and then the book ends without it being resolved. Now, while he may’ve had larger, arguably more important things on his mind, this still feels like something an earlier-Harry Dresden would’ve obsessed about. Though apparently not a later-one. Or maybe Butcher just missed one here. Or this may yet be resolved in Battle Ground. In fact, I certainly hope it is. But as of now, I can’t promise anything.

Otherwise… Harry no longer shouts “parkour” intermittently, which is a big downer.

And that’s it.

TL;DR

An amazing return to the Dresden Files universe, Peace Talks should impress and overjoy new and old fans alike. But for one caveat, the book was incredible, and one that shouldn’t stay unread on your shelf for very long. I ran through it in about three days, but could’ve read it in two. Butcher waited six years to bring us another Dresden adventure, but delivered in the end. While I had trouble remembering some characters and events due to the length of the series, those can be solved with one of a few cheat-sheets you can find online [wiki] [fandom]. I also had a bit of trouble connecting the current Harry Dresden with the Detective one in early books, but people do change. Even wizards. Even, it seems, Harry Dresden.

The Dresden Files continues with Battle Ground, due September 29th, 2020. Can’t wait!

Tunnel of Bones – by Victoria Schwab (Review)

Cassidy Blake #2

Supernatural, Paranormal, Middle Grade

Scholastic Press; September 3, 2019

304 pages (ebook) 5 hr 5 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Trouble is haunting Cassidy Blake… even more than usual.

Thus begins Tunnel of Bones, the second Cassidy Blake story, following up City of Ghosts in 2018. Fresh out of Edinburgh, where she tangled with the Red Raven, a spectral lady with aims of becoming flesh reborn. She also met Lara, a girl that can also see and interact with the dead, and whom lets Cassidy in on a little secret. That they must use their power to send the ghosts on, lest they linger in our world and become a danger to it. Enter Paris: one of the most haunted cities in the world.

Not above ground—but below, in the catacombs, ghosts crowd the tunnels, haunting everything and everyone in reach. Fresh into Paris, Cassidy and her parents venture below, filming an episode for their TV show while Cassidy tags along, attempting very hard to slip between the Veil as soon as she’s able. And slip she does. While in the spirit world, Cassidy runs across more than she was prepared for, awakening a very powerful spirit who proceeds to follow her across the Veil.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse haunting in the center of Paris—where Cassidy is most certainly not the cat. And as a cat, it delights in toying with her, breaking things, and sleeping in the sun. Well… two of those, anyway.

After speaking to Lara, she determines that the spirit is a poltergeist—a ghost of immense power and potential—something that remembers neither who it was nor how it died. Two things Cassidy must discern in order to stop it. And stop it she must—in only a few days. Otherwise, while Cassidy Blake will leave Paris behind, the poltergeist will always remain her problem, her doing, her mistake. And she will have to live with the consequences.

I was torn on City of Ghosts, which I found lacking polish, drama, and shine. I found it rather bland, uninteresting, and short. Tunnel of Bones had more character, polish, but was still short. There’s only so good a story can get in five hours. But Tunnel of Bones surely gets better, quicker than City of Ghosts. To compare the two: Bones had more polish, more charm, more character. Though neither provided the length, the thrill, the immersion that I like in a story.

Again, I found the actual ghost-hunting itself a little bland. Dismissing a poltergeist proved to be more interesting than the Red Raven, but only just. There was no boss-fight (not that I expected one), very little detective work (though there was some), and too much chocolate (only because I can’t eat any). Pretty much like an episode of Danny Phantom—short, less than very thrilling, and over before you realized there was a plot. Was better than the first, though, so it was a step in the right direction.

Jacob is… bland. Lara—who was a cynical, pompous brat in City of Ghosts—actually fleshes out some in this entry. She actually seemed a real person over Bones, something that I did not expect. Something that pleased and encouraged me. Actually may’ve been my most favorite element of the book itself. But while it was something, it was little enough as development goes. Not that there is much character development to speak of, but between the two books there is a little, and Lara accounts for most of it. Cassidy commands the remainder. Jacob… okay, I know he’s a ghost and all, but I would’ve liked to see something out of him. Schwab tries to nudge him toward it in the end, but it’s too little, too late by that point. Might set something up for the third book, but does nothing for the first two. Jacob is actually a little like an imaginary friend; there’s no change, no development—he’s consistent, for better or worse.

There’s one particular event that I need to harp on: late in the book, Cassidy literally mugs a ghost and steals his clothes to disguise Jacob—something that makes no actual sense. We’ve established that ghosts manifest beyond the Veil following their death, and that how they appear in death is directly related to both who they were in life and how they died. It’s their sense of self, basically. One cannot steal someone else’s sense of self and wear it around. And it’s an important plot-point, somehow! If an absolutely ridiculous one.

Audio Note: Reba Buhr is a solid narrator throughout the book. I wouldn’t read the series entirely to hear her voice, but it’s not like it ruined the reading or anything. She was a talented, interesting narrator who enunciated and pronounced everything quite well—both in English and French.

TL;DR

For better or worse, Tunnel of Bones continues on the same path City of Ghosts started, albeit with more polish and shine. There’s even a bit of character development, though not nearly enough. It looks like we’re going to continue in this vein—an episodic, city-to-city, traveling ghost-hunting show. There’s an overarching plot, but it’s thin; as befits a kids’ book, I suppose. Each book so far has shown its own subplot, which has been raced through in the (5 hours of) allotted time. Going forward, I would like to see a little more effort, a little more adventure, a little more intrigue, a little more legwork, and a little… MORE. While Tunnel of Bones is likely better than the original, it still leaves much to be desired. But in terms of readability—it’s good enough; a decent read, that does just enough but little more.

The series continues with Bridge of Souls, expected out in March of 2021.

By some amazing coincidence, I’ve posted this exactly one year after my review of the first one. Huh, weird.

Blood Tally – by Brian McClellan (Review)

Valkyrie Collections #2

Urban Fantasy

February 11, 2020

200ish pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

The fictitious Cleveland Brian McClellan has painted has not grown much more realistic, but that’s okay. The story of Blood Tally—like that of Uncanny Collateral—is quick, clever, and entertaining; the real clincher. While I didn’t enjoy all the time I spent in the OtherOps arena, I loved far more than I loathed, which is well worth it in my book.

Blood Tally is a little longer than Uncanny Collateral’s 151 pages, though with the ebook it’s kinda hard to tell how much. I’d guesstimate it at around 200 pages or so.

Alex Fitz is a reaper, a soul collection agent for the Valkyrie Corporation. He is also a slave—illegally bought and sold to the company owner back when he was a child. For years, Alex has been searching for his birth parents, the contract they signed, and some, any way to get free. While little has changed in that arena, Blood Tally opens with an unusual case—one that hits way too close to home. A vampire has come to Valkyrie in search of his runaway thrall. While technically a would-be vampire, Alek knows thralls are little more than slaves to their lord before their conversion to full-on vampirehood. While he would normally opt out of a case like this one, this time Alek has little choice. His master has her own deal in place, to betray their original client, Boris Novak, to one of the vampire lords, a guy named Ruthven.

While Alek has little choice but to go along with the scheme, it seems that more than just Boris has been holding out on him. Indeed, soon it seems to him that Lord Ruthven and Alek’s boss, Ada, have their own agendas. Agendas that have little room for a certain reaper.

Thus Alek must uncover their secrets while trying to conceal his own—in the form of the mysterious jinn, Maggie. He might still win the day, but to do so he must live long enough to determine just what a “Blood Tally” is, why both his employers are willing to kill for it, and what to do with the information even if he manages to find it. It’s hard to tell friend from foe in the latest Valkyrie Collections entry, which features a lot of vampires, a sphinx, a rogue witch, and a whole mess of secrets worth killing over. Oh, and the fate of the world itself might be at stake.

With the first book, I noted that while I had no problem reading it, McClellan didn’t exactly go out of his way to try to make the “real world” very realistic. That holds true for Blood Tally—where the supernatural is again commonplace, while at the same time a (maybe?) secret from the rest of the world. I mean, I was assuming it was, but this really hasn’t been touched through the first two books. I can’t tell if it’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kinda story, or if the author just hasn’t addressed it because he hasn’t wanted to get into it. Either way, there was an awkward kind of uncertainty to everything, at least for me.

While Uncanny Collateral centered heavily on Alek—a lone reaper with no backup and few friends—Blood Tally instead tells Alek’s story, a reaper amidst a small cast of friends and allies. I mean, it’s still 1st PPOV, but instead of Alek and Maggie alone, we are treated to a few other recurring, non-hostile characters. Nick, the hired gun (necromancer) from the first book is back, albeit in an uncertain role. There’re a few other supernatural creatures who may turn into allies or friends, if they can go the whole story without trying to kill Alek. Maggie is still around, though their banter wasn’t as central as it was in Uncanny Collateral.

TL;DR

The second Valkyrie Collections delivers right where the first left off. If you liked the first, you’ll love the second, and vice-versa. While a bit fast-and-loose with the state of affairs of muggles and Cleveland and the world itself, Blood Tally does an adequate job of world-building through a basic framework of pictures and lines and color thrown in. Though it’s not the vibrant, vivid, description-heavy fantasy I may be used to, Blood Tally is an exciting, interesting adventure that I never had any trouble reading. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter—which, I mean, right?—then you’ll have to wait until February 11, 2020 to read it. Good luck!

In Shining Armor – by Elliott James (Review)

Pax Arcana #4

Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

Orbit; April 26, 2016

424 pages (PB)

3 / 5 ✪

Carry the Story, Check its Baggage

In Shining Amor stars Harry Dresden and Taylor Lautner knockoff love-child John Charming. Fresh off the events of Fearless (or was that Daring?), which found Charming the godfather of Constance, knights and werewolf daughter alike, In Shining Armor finds her a captive—I suppose because James needed a new book idea and went with his very first thought.

It’s been a few months since John and Sig got together. Charming, being his usual optimistic self, has spent this time automatically assuming something will go wrong. Eventually, you’d have to assume he’d be right. The kidnapping of his goddaughter certainly qualifies. And yet the intriguing part of this is that although her abduction is the initial selling-point of this book, it’s not the all-encompassing story that I assumed it’d be.

No, instead of Constance, In Shining Armor has more to do with her absence. In particular, what her absence means. For when everything points to her abduction being an inside job, the two factions behind her protection start pointing fingers. Mostly at one another. And when the tenuous alliance between knights and werewolves begins to decay, a war is brewing.

Though not the war you’d expect.

The worst part of this was book was the relationship between John and Sig. Seriously, they were really annoying. Really, REALLY ANNOYING. I mean, the casual, witty, sarcastic banter was cute at first. Entertaining, even. But to read it throughout the entire book got old very, very quickly. Especially as it seemed to bleed into every single conversation. The group gets ambushed and almost killed? Witty banter underscored with sexual tension. Our heroes battle for their lives against an ancient, unknown foe? Witty sexual banter. Trying to figure out who wants to start a war and why? Sarcasm and banter mixed. An old ally, a new enemy, any bit of mystery or any kind of planning? Sex. Sarcasm. Relationship. Drama.

It all reads like a guide to Sig and John’s relationship, with the actual plot a simple undercurrent to it. Which is too bad, because the actual plot is pretty solid. Wasn’t what I expected, that’s for sure. The abduction of Constance is too obvious, too quick. The war, the misdirection, the rest—it’s really quite entertaining. Like, a 4.5 or higher story. And yet everything seems to distract from it.

The action is… actiony? I mean, it seems to be added specifically because the author thought there should be action. Because he wanted his characters (semi-action hero-y in the past), to be total Action Heroes. The first fight scene blends pretty well into the background of the tale. From then on, it seemed the fights were just an addendum to everything. Violence for the sake of violence. Now, as a guy, I love a good violence every now and then. You know, 300, explosions, kung fu, Braveheart, All For One and that kinda thing. In Shining Amor reads kinda like a mystery covered in a bunch of sticky notes. Through these, James tries to flesh out the characters, the action, the romance, the development and everything else he thinks the text needs. All the while the real story sits buried—perfectly good in its own right. It really tries to be too much. Could be a romance (well, maybe a casual chick-flick), just cut the action. A thriller, just get rid of the John-Sig affair. A mystery, or paranormal fantasy, just stop trying to add everything else.

TL;DR

In Shining Armor tries and tries, just in the end it tries too much. Its fantastic story is buried beneath heaps of romance and action and thrills that don’t really work. And certainly don’t go together. The dialogue is disgusting and annoying, especially once you get into it. The action is your basic fight-scene, copied and repeated throughout. The story is pretty amazing, by itself. In the end, In Shining Amor is a pretty good read, without all the fiddly bits. It really is. I recommend it, just don’t take it too seriously. Skip over some of the dialogue, some of the fight scenes, some of the sex. It becomes a shorter, much more entertaining adventure, mystery, and experience.