Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers (and major spoilers—in one paragraph that’s marked as spoilery).

1980’s New England. An 11th century manuscript of untold value and much deeper worth has gone missing from haut monde boarding school Danforth Putnam, where the elite intermingle with the destitute. Sam Gregory—insurance investigator and scarred war vet—sets forth to the isle to investigate.

Upon landing Sam finds more cause for concern than just a lost manuscript. There are students missing—not that anyone seems too concerned. Danforth Putnam has an interesting system on the books to balance its aristocratic pedigree. Namely, granting orphans a full tuition at the school so long as they help out with some of the more unsavory labor, below the status of the rich and famous. The students that have gone missing, of course, belong to the lower class—motherless urchins that no one will miss. And indeed no one seems to.

But Sam is only here for the book. And while the missing students worry him—he really can’t do anything about them.

But the longer he spends at Danforth Putnam, the more Sam worries that the missing students might tie-in to the absence of the book. Confronted with wild rumors of witchcraft and murders, he must navigate the warren of gossip and lies that exist at any school, at least so long as he hopes to find the book. But Sam is tireless and ardent in his duty, which is good—for one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole might go.

“Cops know how much the book’s worth?”


Thomas Arundel sighed. “Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don’t care what it’s worth. As far as anyone own that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category.”

The story is entertaining, exciting, and immersive. The mystery itself is interesting and fast-paced, so I never had any trouble reading it. Sam Gregory is a little bit of a cliché—a Vietnam vet who uses cigarettes and a wise-ass routine to mask his PTSD, while refusing to play by the rules. Good thing he’s a PI and not a detective, or it would’ve been an unacceptable level of cliché. But I guess my tolerance for freelance or third-party gumshoes is a lot more lenient than beat cop. I actually quite enjoyed his renegade persona and sarcasm, though I still feel like it’s the default state for any 80’s cop. Don’t get me started on the reporter angle. If there are two POVs in any mystery/thriller nowadays, odds are they’re a reporter and some kinda detective.

The character development in this was about as deep and intricate as the characters themselves. As in, they weren’t. Everyone—even Sam and Harriet—were one-sided and shallow. Only one character showed anything even remotely like growth, and yet I really wouldn’t’ve called it that.

While Friend of the Devil doesn’t try anything new at the outset, the more you dig into the story, the more it threatens to exploit these clichés in unexpected ways. Overall, the story was interesting, immersive, and thrilling. An 11th century manuscript missing, a wayward teen obsessed with magic and power, missing students, terrible secrets, a plot that refused to slow down once it got rolling. And then comes the end.

And the main issue I had with it. The scene comes close to the end and is the lynchpin for everything that follows. And it’s… ridiculous. It’s clear that the author had an ending in mind, and had written up a thrilling conclusion to match, but was having trouble connecting the two. And instead of reworking one or the other—they forced it.

°°

Beware spoilers for the following paragraph
The scene in question takes place between a teenage girl and a grown man. The girl is noted as being undersized, appearing much like a twelve-year old instead of her actual sixteen. The man is described as strong, 6’3, 220, built a bit like a boxer. Additionally, the teenager has no history or interest in martial arts or dedicated exercise (yes, I know one can be physically fit without an interest in such things—that’s not the point I’m trying to make—just give me a minute here). She also suffers from none-too-rare epileptic seizures. The lynchpin exchange has her suffering a seizure just after taking the man’s hand. She proceeds to judo-throw him over her shoulder ten feet. While seizing up. No, he’s not off-balance. Yes, this is vital to the plot. If it were reversed, and it were a 200+ pound man seizing up and throwing a girl over his shoulder teen feet, I’d still be calling bullshit, so it makes perfect sense that I’m equally incensed about it the other way around.

°°

And forcing it—particularly in this manner, in this case—just doesn’t work. Like, at all. It soured me on the ending, and a bit on the plot to this point. Which just had (I’ll point out) dropped another bombshell on us, which I was still working through, deciding if it made any more sense (it DID, but only just, not that that mattered for very long). I’m not saying that this was the intent, but it just struck me as lazy: you’ve written a thrilling and entertaining story; you dropped your big twist; and now see fit to ruin it with some uncooked scenario just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Two weeks out, and I still find myself looking back on the tale: the immersion of the setting, the story; the way the tense atmosphere slowly devolves into horror and terror; the mystery that’s there to solve, that has you looking one way for so long and then suddenly opening your mind to a dozen new possibilities—and then I remember the ending. And it’s mostly soured.

TL;DR

If you happened to read the entire review—welcome to the end! If you didn’t, that’s okay too, I guess. But only one of you will understand just how hard it is for me to rate this book. I mean, you’ve seen my star-rating above, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book—or around 90% of it. Around the 80% mark things started to get a little weird, but that’s to be expected with these horror titles. 9/10ths of the way down, Friend of the Devil was sailing towards an 8 star rating, with little that could derail its bright, bright future. But at the close, everything fell apart. An impossibility; a ridiculous moment that should’ve been laughed off and rewritten, but instead went down as a major plot-point, something the entire ending hinged on. And it soured everything for me. And yet… I guess I’m still going to recommend this. Maybe it won’t be as big an issue for you. Maybe you’ll be willing to overlook a few clichés, a few shallow characters, a few stumbles.

After skimming the other reviews of this, it seems I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. So, maybe… wait for it to go on sale. Or look for it at your local library. Or go in with an open mind, but temper your expectations.

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!

A Dead-End Job – by Justin Alcala (Review)

Death’s Hitman #1

Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

Parliament House; October 5, 2021

283 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Parliament House and NetGalley, through which they provided me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

A somewhat novel take on the Grim Reaper trope—where Death is replaced by a mortal for whatever reason—A Dead-End Job isn’t exactly generic, but it’s certainly not new either. I’d call it unique, if only because I’ve never read anything quite like it. It does try a lot of things, but.. well, you’ll see.

Death is hurting—he needs a vacation. Badly. Thanks to automation, the job pretty much takes care of itself nowadays. People die, the souls turn over, and march their own way through to the afterlife. But Death’s job isn’t so simple as it used to be. Because where there is a system in place with rules and regulations, there will always people trying to cheat the system. It’s those that cause Death most of his headaches, and take up most of his time.

So in order to go on holiday, Death must find someone to take up his mantle for just a little while. So he hires a hitman to do it.

And not just any hitman—the best there is. Okay, well, maybe not her. Instead he picks Buck Palasinksia, the most recent hitman to take a bullet through the skull. Buck wasn’t a bad shot in his day, and feels reasonably certain he can do the job. Plus, he’s dead, which makes him perfect for the job.

Now all he has to do is take out Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, and all the other would-be cheaters while Death is off sipping Coronas on the beach.

When the author first started writing A Dead-End Job in 2019, it was nothing more than the idea of a hard-boiled hitman working for a comical Grim Reaper. What came out the other side was a former vet, working as a hitman to support the kid he picked up off the street, throwing humor around to help him make it through the day. Now, in practice I honestly think this sounds like a decent book. In reality however… it just didn’t work for me. Now there’s a lot to love about this book—really, there is—I just didn’t love it.

My objection to it began in the prologue (which is never good), a prologue which I nearly didn’t finish. I’ve never enjoyed the “Grim Reaper in a cubicle” depiction, and it just isn’t ever likely to work on me. Now, that’s a pretty important part of this book, but it wasn’t in the blurb so how was I to know? I felt that Dead-End Job tried a lot of things—none of which worked much better than the setting for me. Buck is a former vet turned hitman, something that was never adequately explained. The kid he picks up along the way joins the picture only after he was killed, so it had nothing to do with supporting her. The references, puns, catch-phrases, and comedic one-liners pretty much define Buck as a character. And were the only depth I ever saw from him. The hitman/thief with a heart of gold is something that I’ve seen too often, and yet another thing I’ve never bought into. This combined with the world and Buck’s brand of cheap 90’s humor pretty much ruined it for me.

Thus A Dead-End Job pretty much follows in a straightforward manner until just before the end, where it does turn an impressive twist. The trouble was that by that point I was just too far gone to care. The ending itself wasn’t bad, but after 250 pages of bad puns and one-liners, it didn’t manage to awaken any sort of enjoyment from me. Like I said before, this may be a good book; it tries a lot of different things, combines death and comedy with the weight of responsibility. I just didn’t feel like it did any of these particularly well, and wasn’t for me regardless.

TL;DR

A Dead-End Job might not be the most interesting take on a mortal replacing the Grim Reaper, nor the most humorous. It’s not the most thrilling, nor the most mysterious. But it might just be… the newest? I really don’t have a lot to say about this book, other than that it didn’t work for me. It definitely didn’t work. It tries a lot of things: combining the weight of parenting with the seriousness of mortality, joins a hard-boiled hitman with an almost comedically disarming Death, and cobbles the whole thing together with puns, catch-phrases, and references fresh out of the 90’s. While I didn’t feel like it managed any of these particularly well, it also didn’t ruin them. Not exactly. I mean, most of these things have already been ruined for me, so the whole thing was pretty much doomed from the start. Maybe you’ll like it better, though. If you’re the kinda person that enjoys any two of the above tropes, maybe give it a shot. Otherwise, maybe don’t.

Note: As of reviewing, A Dead-End Job has a 4.42 rating on Goodreads, with a dozen five-star ratings and generic reviews from non-mainstream authors. Now I’m not saying that these people just provided a 5 star review to help boost the ratings and help out a fellow author… I’m just saying that it’s a wee bit suspicious. That’s all. I was actually going to go into more depth with this, but… I dunno, I am a little sympathetic. It’s hard to get your book out there when you’re on your own, when you don’t have a big publicity engine behind you—who am I to judge someone who’s just trying to help out their colleague? Who wants nothing more to follow their dreams and succeed, even if all the odds seemed stacked against them? So… while I wouldn’t recommend this, you can still give it a try yourself. Just, maybe wait til it’s on sale.

And maybe look for a more in-depth exploration of this later on.

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 Liar of Red Valley – by Walter Goodwater (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Horror

Solaris; September 28, 2021

368 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance copy of this in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my rating or review. Special thanks to Solaris and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Don’t Trust the Liar.

Don’t go in the River.

Don’t cross the King.

Red Valley, California isn’t like other towns. Sure, there are schools and grocery stores and restaurants. There are parks and businesses and bridges. There are forests and families and livelihoods. But there are also some things in Red Valley that aren’t in the rest of the world.

There are things that aren’t human, but aren’t exactly inhuman either. There are things that go bump in the night, but have been convinced not to do so here. Are are beings as old as time, and some things even older. There are rules that you don’t break, not if you want to live. And there’s power, power to rule the world—or remake it.

Sadie is just another small town girl. Born into Red Valley, she’s now well on the way to dying in it. A waitress at a local diner, Sadie’s life isn’t exciting or notable in the least. Except that she’s the only daughter of the Liar—and the Liar has power.

Not power like the King, but not insignificant either. When her mother dies, Sadie is forced to confront this power directly. For she is now the new Liar, and her mother’s power is now her own. But what is it, and how does it work? While her mother never explained the power to her, Sadie knows the basics. Someone comes to the Liar. They have money, and something about the world they want changed. They tell the Liar what they want changed, and supply the Liar with an offering of blood to do it. An offering that often enacts another price entirely. Ofttimes it’s something petty, something superficial. The more inconsequential, the cheaper it is for them. But something is missing from this, something that Sadie needs to know. Just where does the power come from, and how does she harness it?

Something she’ll have to find out quickly, for it’s not long before people come a’calling. The sheriff wants to use her new power, while the town junkie wants something else. And when the King calls on her, Sadie knows it can only get worse. But what is the real purpose of the Liar, and is it a fate Sadie even wants to share?

While I’ve most often seen this classed as ‘horror’, I didn’t find the Liar of Red Valley terribly “horrifying”. It was an interesting—and entertaining—fantasy debut, one that makes you think about the origins of power, authority, and the things that go bump in the night. The main thing I latched onto out of the official blurb was the “inhuman” aspect. Now there’s just enough of this in the book to make you think—but no more. I really would’ve liked to explore more of the things that bump in the night, not a mere one or two that show up in the text.

It is an entertaining read, fortunately. Entertaining with quite a few plot twists. Including one in particular that’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a doozy of a twist, one that both makes you think and makes you buy into the story like never before. Not that the story was a drag before that. This was never a difficult one to read. With a lively plot, a relatable lead, a decent supporting cast, a number of mysteries to solve, and an intriguing setting—the Liar of Red Valley had so much to love, and more.

Sadie’s mother is central to the plot, but we spend the entire book trying to learn more about her. She was a power in Red Valley, one that might have even rivaled the King itself. But what was her power? How did she control it? And what was the great Lie she told that everyone wants to get a hold of? It’s really a book of mysteries, not horrors. And the answers to those mysteries and more are just inside!

Paper & Blood – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #2

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 10, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware Spoilers for Ink & Sigil (maybe read this one first, eh?)

Fresh off the Case of the Trafficked Fae and Stolen Whisky, Al MacBharrais and his hobgoblin Buck are thrown into another mystery involving missing sigil agents, a rising body count, and a untracked god appearing in the south of Australia.

It all begins with a mysterious, god-level event in the Dandenong Mountains, a range just north of Melbourne, Australia. Sigil agent Shu-hua goes to investigate, only to disappear without a trace. Another sigil agent, Mei-ling, and her apprentice set out shortly after to attempt to find Shu-hua, only to suffer the same mysterious fate themselves. As folk keep disappearing Down Unda, Shu-hua’s apprentice Ya-ping frantically contacts Al, desperate for some help finding her missing mentor.

Now it’s up to MacBharrais and his wee pink hob to travel to Southern Victoria and find the missing agents, people plus whatever’s been taking them. Oh, and he invites the Iron Druid Connor (formerly Atticus)—who has taken up residence just south in Tasmania—to come along for the ride.

Thus the adventure begins, with Al, Hob and Ya-ping joining forces with Connor, Oberon and Starbuck to find their brethren and foil whatever nefarious forces are at work. There will be plenty of time for fun along the way—with a plethora of guest stars, cameos, heists, and stories to distract from all of that ass-kicking that is sure to commence when the team hunts down their prey.

I found this adventure a good read; fun, exciting, and interesting in all the right ways. As with the first book in the series, I enjoyed Al in a way I never did Atticus. Therefore I was initially disappointed when the Iron Druid showed up—but forgave the choice as he proved to be a much more mellow, far less superpowered god as I remembered. The same core characters from Ink & Sigil return as Nadia, Buck, and of course Al reprise their roles, much to the same tune as last time. However, except for a little piece of backstory on Buck, we really don’t learn anything especially new or interesting about them. Ya-ping is a welcome relief as the apprentice sigil agent is funny but deep, interesting, and relatable without being too wise for her age. I even enjoyed the Iron Druid, after a fashion. Unfortunately that doesn’t hold true for Gladys (MacBharrais’s secretary from Book #1), who returns with a bit of mysterious backstory. I found her as unlikely as she was unlikeable, and the whole concept of her surprise reveal stupid.

While it’s a good, fun read, Paper & Blood is far from perfect.

[They want to bag a druid, and not just any Druid: They want the Iron Druid.]

“Me? Why?”

“So many reasons!” Buck said, spreading his arms wide but keeping his voice low. “A Lot of human violence is committed over the idea of proprietary sex partners. Could that be it?”

“…Nnno.”

First off, as the story itself comes directly after Al’s realization that he’s the victim of not one but two curses, I really would’ve thought we’d’ve focussed on that more. But other than a little tidbit at the very end, we end back where we started. It’s like… So, the spinoff was a hit. Episode 1 ended on a high note and we’re all invested in the mystery and can’t wait to see where it leads in Episode 2. But instead of any continuation of what must be the overarching season plot, Episode 2 is a self-contained story that has very little to do with anything (although it’s all well and good and interesting in its own right), only to spend the last minute or two refocussing everyone on what happened at the end of Episode 1 and where the story’s sure to be headed now. In short, while Episode 2 was good, we made no season plot progress from #1 but end the episode assuring the audience that we’re totally going to come Episode 3.

Now I realize that this might’ve been an attempt to expand the world, the lore, or more firmly establish the connection to the Iron Druid universe. And it does two out of the three—though doesn’t teach us anything more about different sigils—the connections and lore being leaned on heavily. The lore was particularly interesting, as it expands the world, the pantheons, and their capabilities.

Additionally, within this self-contained adventure, there are a few (three) “campfire stories” that didn’t seem to connect to anything. Okay, okay—I’m sure you could come up with some connections, but they’re tenuous at best, and at worst have nothing to do with either the plot of Episode 1 or 2 and are just included to waste time. Combined, the three take up roughly 15% of the book. I found the first one (3%) interesting, the second (2%) boring, and the third (10%) especially pointless.

TL;DR

All in all, I left Paper & Blood feeling a bit annoyed, but overall pleased with my time spent within its pages. After waiting on it a few days however, mostly now I just feel that while the story was entertaining, it was didn’t leave any lasting sense of accomplishment. Nothing happens that relates to the overarching plot of the series: Al’s curse. It’s a self-contained adventure that—while interesting and entertaining in its own right—is pretty much just a waste of time. I’m not saying Paper & Blood wasn’t good—it was! It told a fun, ofttimes exciting story, but related to fuck all of the story from Book 1. If you enjoyed the Iron Druid series, it’ll probably just be worthwhile to see Atticus again. If you thought Ink & Sigil thinking that it was a lovely time, full of laughter and fun—you’ll probably like Paper & Blood. But if you like a bit more substance out of your series, you’ll likely still enjoy your time, but leave feeling a bit disappointed.

In the Shadows of Men – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

Novella

Horror, Supernatural

Subterranean Press; August 31, 2020

120 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the desolate wastes of West Texas, In the Shadows of Men finds two brothers down on their luck, looking to cash in on the oil boom. To do this they need to renovate the old Moon and Stars Motel, sold to them by a cousin who wanted nothing to do with the place. As the younger Pugh and his brother, Bear wade into the wreck, they find its dusty halls and empty rooms strangely comforting, at least at first. But after a while, little Pugh begins to notice a disquiet about the place. Apparitions haunt his dreams; a looming man in white, young Mexican women, and an almost palpable feeling of lust and desire. Soon these thoughts begin to infect more than just his dreams—and that’s when things get stranger still.

The brothers find a hatch in one of the rooms: a steel door padlocked from the outside. As neither can discern the combination lock, they try to forget about it and move on. But once unearthed, it proves to be a mystery that just won’t die. Especially when the local sheriff comes by, teasing them with information on the history of the place and its owner—their great-uncle—Corbin Pugh.

Their own father was a devil of a man, but supposedly his uncle was something else entirely. What kind of man was Corbin Pugh, and what was the secret he was hiding? And how badly do the brothers want to find the truth, when it means they can never unlearn it?

My first question is what kind of person would think that moving to Texas would solve all their problems?

Well as they’re both from Texas, I guess this point is moot. West Texas is far removed from Houston, which the younger Pugh has just left. The story takes place in a small, lonely town, a suitable setting for just such a ghost story. And while little Pugh isn’t a terrible narrator, he’s not not the best lead, either. In fact, as neither brother is a conversationalist, the story often skips ahead days or weeks at a time, even after unearthing some new piece of the puzzle. While he’s pegged as the less inquisitive of the two, Bear seems to be more interested in solving the puzzle than his brother, who typically finds something curious and then goes and doesn’t think about it until a week later. Who finds a golden puzzle piece only to wait until a week later to see where it might fit?

Though the stoicism of the narrator works against the story, I felt it also prolonged the mystery in a way, which helped the atmosphere surrounding it. There was a greater sense of anticipation, a bigger building of tension. Though while the build was more enjoyable, I would’ve liked it to’ve been longer, or more intricate. Also, the conclusion itself was slightly underwhelming. So, yes, it hurt in some ways, but helped in others. All in all, the story evened out. Definitely a good read—though it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

On an unrelated note: I really hate when we don’t learn the narrator’s name. We learn his brother’s name, his uncle’s, his wife’s and daughter’s—but not his own. Annoying. And harder to write a completely coherent review.

TL;DR

In the Shadows of Men was an entertaining enough read, considering a sped through it in less than a day. It’s the mystery, if nothing else, that drove me through it, as neither the story nor the premise are particularly original or interesting enough to carry all the weight. But a dark tale, full of supernatural elements, a mystery that needs solving, and a man whose life is in desperate need of an escape—all combine to make this an enjoyable (at least in some ways) horror-thriller. It’s a good, quick read, just don’t expect it to leave much of a lasting impression.

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!