The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind – by Jackson Ford (Review)

The Frost Files #1

Paranormal, Scifi

Orbit Books; June 18, 2019

497 pages (ebook)
13hr 24m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

If you hadn’t guessed already by the title, and you’re not the kind of person who reads books that swear, like, a lot, maybe skip this one. Just saying—I did warn you.

Being a secret agent isn’t a bad gig, but it’s not the life Teagan Frost wants. Sure, she can move shit with her mind—but she’s so much more than just that. She’s got hopes and dreams and ambitions, and being a sideshow for the government isn’t one of them. Still, it’s better than being dissected, which is the only other legitimate “life” she has access to. But at least that option is closed off—at least for now.

But when a body turns up on site at her last job, killed in a way only she could ever have managed, dissection is—somewhat literally—back on the table. Now, the ambitious telekinetic has 20 hours to clear her name, a deadline not even the government seems likely to honor. Soon enough, her team is on the run, with only Teagan and her PK the reason they haven’t been caught yet.

At least it’s only the government that’s chasing them.

Or it would be if not for the rogue telekinetic she’s chasing, the notorious LA gang she’s pissed off, and the army of police that have been on the lookout for her ever since the murder. Now if only she could focus on that and not worry about her love-life getting in the way, or her past coming back to haunt her, or her friends falling into danger because of her own choices… she could maybe have a normal life. Maybe.

I’ve never actually finished a book by Rob Boffard before. Figures that the first one I do get through, it’s written under a pseudonym.

The Girl Who Could Move Shit with Her Mind isn’t exactly a literary masterpiece. It’s a good bit of high-octane, heart-pounding action. It’s a thriller that doesn’t let up, but a thriller all the same. Swearing ain’t exactly an art form, but even if it were, this book wouldn’t exactly be a work of art. Still, the writing’s not bad, the dialogue isn’t bad, and the plot sure isn’t bad either. None of these things are terribly innovative, but it’s still an entertaining read.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Teagan has been falsely accused of murder and has one day to prove her innocence. She has to call in every favor, cut every corner, and make every gamble she can in order to yada yada yada. Again, it’s not that this is a bad read, it’s just that it’s not very inventive or creative. Other than the bit about a telekinetic, it’s basically every thriller that’s ever been written. Which is all just a way to say that it better at least be entertaining.

Which it is.

I got through The Girl That Could in about a week, listening to it in my downtime approaching Christmas, partly because I was stuck at home with little else to do but read. And it was interesting, entertaining, and immersive. I didn’t pick it up because I was after something deep or thought-provoking, which is good, because it’s really not those things. This was a good, quick, entertaining thriller that does a lot of things right, despite not being terribly creative nor having an immaculate prose.

That said, the romance was a bit of a miss. With everything leading up to it, and everything else going on, I didn’t feel like there was really a chance for anything all that romantic to get a foothold. And the way that it ended, when it was finally given some time to, like, be romantic, was a joke. In some sense, it’s good that I didn’t sell out on the romance from the very beginning, because when it finally was given some time—and fell flat—I wasn’t surprised.

TL;DR

I’m going to keep this pretty short. If you’re after a thoughtful, intricate, and drawn out mystery, complete with deep, erudite characters and an innovative plot—this ain’t it. If instead you’re after a quick, entertaining thriller, with enough violence, language, and action to keep you immersed—yeah, this certainly fills that void. I wouldn’t expect it to win any literary awards or anything. I would buy this one, and the next (which I have, by the way), and schedule the two for sometime when I needed something quick, entertaining, and not too deep.

Audio Note: I quite enjoyed the narration of Lauren Patten! In fact, I doubt that I’d have enjoyed this book as much as I did without her behind the mouth of Teagan. She really sold Frost’s casual do-not-give-a-fuck attitude, even in the points where her character was completely freaking out. And I hear that she’s returned in the second installment, Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air, which I’ve already gone out and purchased.

Black Water Sister – by Zen Cho (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace Books; May 11, 2021

380 pages (ebook)
11hr 37m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

Jessamyn Teoh is fresh out of Harvard, and the world is her oyster! Realistically though, she’s got just about nothing—no waiting job, no place to live, a mountain of student debt—and so decides to move back to Malaysia with her parents, where she hasn’t lived since her parents immigrated to America when she was a toddler.

But Malaysia may not be the clean start she was looking for. Here, Jess is still broke and unemployed, living with relatives who condescend to her, and a state that condemns her for the way she was born. Not that her girlfriend would ever visit her here. Malaysia is one thing, but what would her family say? Jess is still very much in the closet, although her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wasn’t. A girlfriend she rarely gets to see and talk to, done entirely over video chats and messages in the dead of night.

Her life can’t get much worse. Or so Jess thinks.

…Until she starts hearing voices. Voices claiming to be the manifestation of her dead grandmother’s spirit, speaking to Jess as their medium. In life Ah Ma was the medium for the mysterious and powerful minor deity known as the Black Water Sister, but in death she is a powerful spirit with a grudge—one that just happens to be against a gang boss and his family.

And now this grudge is Jess’s also, drawing her deeply into the world of ghosts, gods, crime, and secrets, any one of which would be enough to get her killed. But while she begins to gain attention from all the wrong places, Jess is willing to admit that it’s not all bad. At least she has a purpose, a place, something to do with her time—at least until she catches the Black Water Sister’s eye.

Moving to Malaysia may not have been the best choice.

Black Water Sister may be an inspirational read for any number of reasons—it features a gay protagonist living in a society that is incredibly against that sort of thing; it’s a coming-of-age, or finding-ones-place-in-the-world kinda thing, something that very much appeals to so many, regardless of age; it tells the tale of a culture, history, and point of view that maybe you weren’t used to—but it’s very much not because of the overwhelming positivity and support. This isn’t what I would call a “bright and sunny” read. It’s quite dark in places: with murder, violence, language, not to mention an attempted rape scene.

While Jessamyn’s orientation begins as just a detail amidst the larger plot, more and more I felt it attempt to take center stage, as Jess struggles to hide who she is from her parents and friends, all the while suffering the strain that this puts on her relationship with her girlfriend. In fact, this adds more and more tension to the overall plot approaching the end, but sadly leaves us without any true resolution come the conclusion.

If you came for the gods and ghosts, the good news is you’re likely staying for them. The story is interesting, turning to entertaining and fast-paced once it gets going. The setting—Penang, Malaysia—is as varied as it is vivid; not to mention an exotic setting that you might not have heard of. Penang has been called the Silicon Valley of the East, and is representative of a liberal and culturally diverse Malaysia, if there even is such a thing in this secular Islamic state. I loved the depiction of the various temples and gods, the underworld and its outward veneer.

But it’s how Jess relates to the country that really sells the story. While she hasn’t lived in Malaysia since she was a toddler, since her parents emigrated from the country in search of a better life for their daughter, Jess has been back. A few times, for visits. But visiting a place and living there are two entirely different experiences. And it’s how she explores these experiences—as a native Malaysian who left, received an Western education, was dosed in “liberal, global culture”, and returned—that affects how the story is told. I quite enjoyed all of it: from the ghosts and gods, to the gangs and underworld; to her parents’ struggle to reconnect with their previous livelihoods; to Jess’s own to establish herself, discover the person she is, to live and to grow, all the while struggling whether or not to come out to her parents, to her family, to legitimize her girlfriend and their relationship. It’s quite the tale, quite the book.

TL;DR

Black Water Sister is a tale of love and acceptance, of hope and defeat, of darkness, death, and growth. Of understanding one’s place, and finding one’s way in the world. There are also gods and ghosts. A gay lead who is very much in the closet and determined to stay there, while her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wouldn’t. It’s about cultural diaspora—of a native daughter returning home only to find it so far from where she remembered. It’s about the past and one’s family—of how blood is blood and kin is kin, but sometimes their actions fade and should be forgotten while others should be remembered above all else. Black Water Sister is a story about a daughter’s quest for acceptance. A girl’s journey to become a woman. A woman’s quest to find what she wants out of life, of who and what she wants to become. While it’s not a perfect story, so little is in this life. Black Water Sister tells a human story of a very human girl/woman (albeit one who can talk to/see gods and ghosts). I’d definitely recommend it to anyone, but especially lovers of paranormal, supernatural, fantasy, urban fantasy above all else.

Audio Note: Catherine Ho does an excellent job bringing Jessamyn Toeh to life! There were a few minor missteps, but I’d chalk those up to being “how do I relate this feeling simply through words” rather than anything the narrator could’ve improved on. I read Black Water Sister as an audiobook in just under three days, and cannot recommend it in this format enough! I can’t wait to see more of Zen Cho and Catherine Ho in the future!

Bridge of Souls – by Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake #3

YA/Middle Grade, Fantasy, Paranormal

Scholastic Press; March 2, 2021
Scholastic Audio; March 2, 2021

304 pages (hardcover)
5hr 36m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones—Cassidy Blake #1-2!

Review for City of Ghosts • Review for Tunnel of Bones

Cassidy Blake has survived some pretty crazy situations: the Red Raven of Edinburgh, the poltergeist haunting the Paris catacombs, even the prospect of dying. Through it she’s met horrible specters, curious ghosts, interesting humans, and even her best friends Jacob and Lara. But New Orleans might just present her toughest challenge to date, for what Cassidy meets her might just be death itself.

Following her success in Paris, Cassidy was confronted on a train station platform by a skull-masked specter, one that was there one moment and gone the next, something that she sensed on BOTH sides of the Veil.

And this thing seems to have followed her to the Big Easy.

While initially Cassidy isn’t sure what this thing is, soon enough it becomes clear that this spirit is not a ghost at all but a servant of death, one that seeks to reclaim her life—the very life that she cheated it out of when she cheated death.

But how does one defeat death? Cassidy and Jacob have no idea—but someone might. In New Orleans, while her parents hunt long-dead serial killers and arsonists, Cassidy seeks out help from the only folk that might help her escape death a second time: the mysterious Order of the Black Cat.

In many ways the Adventures of Cassidy Blake have read like a decent serial. Each week (or in this case each year) features a new location, new situations, ghosts, but retains the same overarching plot. In this way Bridge of Souls is a little different. Pretty much from the first chapter, the series picks up where it left off. No, not on a platform in Paris, but in the same situation that we left there: the confrontation with an emissary of death. And… go!

Thus the story begins, and pretty much follows this plot-line throughout. Yes, there are a few side stories going on, what with her parents’ series filming a bit about serial killers and other horrible deaths in the city. But primarily this book addresses Cassidy and Death, and what their inevitable confrontation might hold.

At first this might sound like a killer story. But in practice it falls a bit flat.

Part of this is due to the size restraint. Bridge of Souls, like the two preceding it, are not long stories. Book #3 is actually the longest of the series to date, clocking in at just over 5 and a half hours. Print-wise, it’s maybe 300 pages, but that’s being generous. The ebook length has got to be shorter, but I’m not sure how much. Audio-wise, it’s shorter than both Edgedancer and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is all a way of telling you that it ain’t very long. And so any story told within its pages probably isn’t going to be terribly complex. Which… it isn’t. Now, it’s not a bad story by any means, it just isn’t all that good. It’s more… meh.

A decent enough entry into the series, Bridge of Souls clears up a major plot-line without really pushing the envelope. It introduces a few new characters—though I’m not sure if they’ll represent anymore than bit parts moving forward. Otherwise, this entry doesn’t really try anything new. Instead it falls back on the same old formula, pretty much a continuance of the adventure that was left unresolved at the end of Tunnel of Bones. That said, it’s an entertaining distraction, another story to fill out the Inbetweeners universe and lore. And while it doesn’t try much new, it does tie up the overarching storyline from the past three books quite nicely.

My only other issue with this was the prose. Sometimes—most times even—it was fine. Normal. But then it just up and changed, often for no reason that I could tell. Became clipped. Short. Maybe like Cassidy was panicking, and this was the author’s attempt at imbuing some kind of tension into the situation? I’m not sure. It was just odd.

Audiobook Note: As usual, Reba Buhr does a great job bringing Cassidy Blake to life! In fact, all her voices were quite good, especially Lara, Jacob and others. I can’t imagine anyone else as the voice of Cassidy Blake, nor anyone else I’d like to give voice to this series but her. A good reader, if you’ve never heard her before—I’d certainly recommend her narration.

TL;DR

Again, a decent entry to the series, Bridge of Souls clears up a major plot-line without really trying anything new or different. It’s the next episode in the serial; one that uses the same formula, background, and script. Sure, there’s a different setting, some new characters, a guest star or two, and maybe a new enemy. But it’s mostly the same. Therefore, it’s mostly good. Just not great. An adequate entry to the series—one that fans of it will love and haters of it will probably forget. So… should you read Bridge of Souls? I mean… yeah, probably. If you’ve read the first two, you might as well. Maybe this will lead us in a new direction, or maybe the new bits that were introduced in this book might take center stage in the next. But while Bridge of Souls is an interesting addition that might pay dues later on down the line, it really isn’t much more than a decent enough way to spend an afternoon now.

The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis (Review)

Standalone (?)

Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Vampires

Titan Books; May 25, 2021

413 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

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.