Chosen – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #4

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 27, 2013

294 pages (paperback)

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8.5 /10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Alex Verus Books 1-3

By this point in the series, Alex Verus is beginning to earn a hard-fought reputation. He liberated the fateweaver and defeated its ancient guardian. He fought and defeated one of England’s foremost battle mages. He stopped an evil ritual, saved the girl, won the day. But mostly, he’s successfully pissed off many powerful mages, creatures, and made a whole lot of potential enemies. Though he’s also made himself some useful allies—and even a few lifelong friends.

Or maybe not.

When Alex’s past comes back to haunt him, he’s forced to confront some ugly memories, and even uglier ghosts. But the worst ghosts are those that just won’t stay dead and buried. Or those that were never dead at all.

One of these turns up in the form of an extremely pissed-off adept—one with a grudge against Alex. Will Traviss was just a kid the first time he ran across Alex, but it was a moment traumatic enough that he’ll never forget Verus’ face. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat Alex back then, but after a decade spent honing his magical talent—and letting his rage simmer—Will is back. And he’s brought a team.

And if Alex wants to live long enough to regret his past decisions, he must find a way to defeat Will, ideally without killing him. Otherwise, Alex may find those friends and allies a bit less than “lifelong”—leaving him alone with his memories and regrets.

And the rumors of his ex-master’s return.

Ja-Ja looked taken aback. He looked down at his palm, then up at Anne, then tried again. Again the lethal green-black light flickered from his hand and into Anne’s body. Again nothing happened.
“Please stop doing that,” Anne said.
“That should have worked,” Ja-Ja muttered.
“It’s okay,” I said brightly. “It happens to a lot of guys.”
“Shut up,” Ja-Ja snapped.
“I’m sure it doesn’t happen to you usually. Maybe you can take a rest and try again in a few minutes.”

Anne glanced at me. “Maybe you should stop taunting them.”

As with many other series, this one gets better with age. The first couple of books act as the author’s way of testing the waters, getting comfortable with their process and writing. The next few give them a chance to grow accustomed to their creations—particularly their characters. The author can get into a groove, and start to learn their creation as well as they know themselves. After that, the books pretty much write themselves.

Except for, you know, the words and stuff. Also the plot. Both the overarching and the episodic ones. And, well, the setting. And… okay okay. So the books will never really write themselves. But at least it should get easier (for a time, at least).

This is the point at which Chosen gets going. Alex has faced some trials and tribulations, but this is the point for me that his story really gets going. We’ve established his recent history—now it’s time to delve into his backstory. Starting with one Will Traviss.

Now, Will Traviss isn’t at the heart of the matter. That’s surely Alex’s relationship with Richard Drakh—his former master. But Traviss is close enough to those old memories, close enough to that old life that one thing leads to another and Alex can’t avoid facing down the darkness that lurks in his past. And this is why I was so excited to get into this part of the series. This is where his past and present collide. And Alex’s future self is born.

It’s not a perfect birth, as so few are. There are hiccups along the way: backstory that doesn’t line up perfectly with what has already been established, some rendering of events and memories outside the scope of what could’ve possibly happened (many of the memories Alex revisits in Chosen are seen from outside of himself—meaning that Alex can look at his younger self instead of watching through their eyes), and some are detailed in total recall instead of through the eye of the beholder. But having this backstory finally explained makes up for most of these. And as mistakes go, these are far from story-breaking.

From here, expect the series to get even better. I remember really enjoying books 5 and 7, and everything kicking off at a new level come Book 8—Bound. #6, Veiled, is a more self-contained adventure that does little to further the overarching story, but far from a poor read in its own right. But then I’ll have plenty of time to get into that later.

I wish that I could tell you that this is the place to start; pick up the series now, starting at Book #4 and you’ll not regret it! But the problem with this is that series like this—episodic, but tying in to an overarching plot—are nothing but a sum of their parts. Parts you really want to have in order to assemble the entire piece. Otherwise you’ll end up with a chair with no legs, or radio with no speaker. But if you’re just after a solid urban fantasy adventure with plenty of magic, action, and thrill—it’d be hard to do much better than Chosen.

Taken – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #3

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 28, 2012 (US)
Orbit; September 6, 2012 (UK)

313 pages (paperback)

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Author Website

8 / 10 ✪

Please beware possible minor spoilers for Alex Verus books #1 and 2

Once, Alex Verus could go weeks without seeing another mage. Kept behind the counter of his Camden shop, he cared little for Council society, dark mages, light mages, or anything beyond his little corner of the world. But now everything has changed.

As Luna’s master, Alex is expected at apprentice events. As a known diviner to the Council, Alex—while not exactly trusted—still manages to get some side work from Talisid, and from the Council itself. Additionally, more and more independents have begun approaching him with divination requests. One such request comes courtesy of Crystal, who wants a tournament at Fountain Ridge monitored. But he has bigger things on his plate. Apprentices have been disappearing, and the Council has no idea how.

Unfortunately, Alex has no idea how either. Not only can he find no trace of them, there’s no evidence, no witnesses, and no suspects. But that’s not the end of his problems.

When someone takes a shot at Anne—one of the other apprentices in the program—Alex steps in to help her. And in doing so involves himself in something he might’ve left very much alone. Someone really wants Anne dead. And Alex can’t rule anyone out. The Council, Anne’s Rakshasa master, the other apprentices, dark mages, light mages, wild dogs, muggles, trees, waffle house employees—everyone seems to want Anne dead. And yet in helping her, Alex is pointed to a very interesting coincidence. As when the Council finally does come up with a suspect, it’s her. Now Alex has to decide whether she’s a friend or foe. And why everyone is trying so hard to see her dead.

Fortunately, he has a clue—albeit a vague one.

The answer you seek is at Fountain Reach.

And that’s it.

Though while Alex has no idea why he’d look to Fountain Reach, he has no better ideas.

Whoever had designed the block of flats had obviously worked to a clear set of priorities. Unfortunately, while cost, size, and low-maintenance had made it to the top of the list. aesthetics, good escape routes, and shelter from gunfire hadn’t.

While Taken isn’t Benedict Jacka’s best work, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The mystery is strong in this one, with an interesting, complex, and thoroughly entertaining story. Unlike the previous two installments, this one has a bit more going on than what’s immediately obvious. With two main plot points, it comes down to what’s happening to the apprentices, and what’s happening with Anne. Neither make sense on their own, but together… yeah, they still don’t make immediate sense. Fortunately, the further we go down the rabbit hole, the more things start to clear up. And while it may not seem like it at first, everything fits together quite nicely—even if there’s not an easy explanation for all of it.

The story isn’t the only thing that gets a leg up come Taken. The character development, particularly that of some of Alex’s allies, starts paying dividends. Though Alex’s own development continues to strengthen, it’s not him that I want to focus on. Even in the first two books, the character development of Alex was strong. But while Verus’ backstory was getting filled in, others were missing out. Luna (primarily) and Sonder as well, get their chance here. Now, while we don’t learn a whole lot about either, what we are given is certainly up from the zero established in earlier books. In addition to these two, another few potential allies begin to emerge. One, Talisid, whose motives have been obscure to this point, starts to get more solidly in Alex’s corner. While the Council man’s a far cry from going out of his way to help Verus, he’s good for a “favor for a favor” trade. Anne, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. But over the course of Taken we see a lot of her, and she and Alex work quite well together.

A much better entry to the series, Taken still falls a bit short on originality. I hate to admit it, but the above message about Fountain Reach—while vague, obscure, and not terribly creative—it’s a key plot point. Without it, I’m not sure the investigation shifting to Fountain Reach would make any sense at all. Which is kind of disappointing. It all works out well enough in the end, but getting to that point really could’ve been accomplished… better. The thing is, that although immersive and immediately readable, the mystery of Taken is a bit of a convoluted mess. A bit. Again, I did legitimately enjoy it, and it all worked out quite nicely in the end, but looking back on it—it is sort of a mess. But hey—it works, and that’s the important part.

TL;DR

All in all, Taken may be the best example of the Alex Verus series to its point, but the best is yet to come. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this series (especially the second half dozen), and even though this isn’t the best that Jacka’s capable of, it’s moving in the right direction. Better than the first two; still more than enough reason to pick it up; definitely recommended!

The Adams Gambit – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

Thieftaker #5 / The Loyalist Witch #3

Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy

Lore Seekers Press; July 27, 2021

107 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

7 / 10 ✪

Contains Spoilers for The Witch’s Storm and Cloud Prison (Loyalist Witch Parts 1-2) and minor spoilers for the Thieftaker series leading up to now.

October 26, 1770 – Boston

The conclusion to the Loyalist Witch finds former thieftaker, Ethan Kaille, once again pitting his magic against the Crown witch, Charlotte Whitcomb. If you’ve read the previous novellas in the trilogy, you’ll be aware that Whitcomb is a lot less bothered by right and wrong than Kaille, and so is willing to do anything and use anyone in pursuit of her aims.

Throughout the series Charlotte Whitcomb has had two primary goals: the death of Samuel Adams, and the dissolution of the Sons of Liberty. In the Loyalist Witch, Whitcomb targeted Kaille and Adams directly. In the Cloud Prison, she moved her attention to his friends and kin. With these avenues now closed to her, the loyalist witch is now forced to her final gambit—an open bounty on Adams’ head.

By now Ethan Kaille is sworn entirely to the side of liberty. But even so, one hundred pounds is a princely sum, sure to even test his loyalties. But even though it fails to sway him, the bounty is sure to bring hunters from all around the colonies upon Boston. And it’s up to Kaille to fend them off.

Luckily, he has friends and allies to assist him in this fight. Unfortunately, he cannot trust them all to stand beside him. As bounty hunters descend on Boston, Kaille must weed out those he cannot trust from those he would, even as a horde of unknown variables enter his city.

Again, Ethan Kaille confronts Charlotte Whitcomb, with the life of Samuel Adams and the cause of liberty on the line. And while Ethan may have let her walk away in the previous two entries, he’s certainly learnt his lesson about being too lenient.

You know, probably.

If you’ve read any of the rest of the Thieftaker books, you know that Ethan is a big softie. He doesn’t like to kill unless absolutely necessary, and won’t even consider it if the foe he happens to be facing is a woman. …You can probably see where this is headed.

But Charlotte Whitcomb is trying his patience. First, she tried to kill Ethan’s best friend, Diver, and his fiancé. Next, she went after his wife, Kandice. Additionally, she’s been doing her best to off him from the start, along with anyone who gets in her way. But as you may expect, he’s still hoping to avoid killing her. But then, his “hope” is seeming pretty thin. And since Whitcomb is a powerful and connected Crown agent, any non-lethal approach won’t be easy.

And sometimes, you have to take a life to save a life.

While this wasn’t quite as good as the first novella in the sequence, the Adams Gambit is still a decent story. But I have to admit, I’m kinda burned out by Charlotte by this point. Throughout four books and three novellas, we’ve really only had two or three real foes. I’m craving something new, rather than the same exact setup as the last story three times in a row. Luckily, because of the short length, this setup goes by rather quickly. Unfortunately, it is basically a rehash of each of the first two beginnings.

In fact, my biggest issue with the Adams Gambit is that it basically reads like a mashup of the first two in the sequence—albeit with a few twists thrown in. Yes, there is the whole issue of whom we can and cannot trust. Yes, Kaille has to decide whether or not he’s going to deal with Charlotte once and for all, or find some other workaround. Yes, the ending is completely different from the others, and it puts the story to rest. But seeing as how I read it not a week ago, I really should be able to remember something else from the first half—except that it just blends into the from the first two. And again, yes, the second half is new and different and undeniably entertaining—but is it enough?

I would argue, yes, it’s entertaining. And if you read the first two, you’re going to want to complete the sequence. But it really could have been better. The whole Loyalist Witch sequence has started to feel a bit stale. I love concept of Thieftaker and the series up til now, but it’s started to fall into a rut. While I’d very much like to see the series continue, I’d also like for the author to take a chance on something new: a new enemy, a new city, a new cause, a new magic, a new… whatever.

So… still recommended, but with a caveat. It’s not perfect, especially the first half—which feels like it’s been done three times over—but it’s entertaining and completes the overarching story in a unique (if not wholly new) manner.

Cursed – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #2

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; May 29, 2012

277 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Fated, Book #1 of the Alex Verus series, and possible minor spoilers for Book #2, Cursed.

Ever since the fallout with the Fateweaver, Alex has been keeping his head down, immersing himself in work at his Camden shop and doing his best to play mentor to an unorthodox apprentice. Yet neither has been working out too well.

Now that he’s on the Council’s radar, it’s only a matter of time before they come calling—so Alex has been picking up odd jobs from his contact Talisid, and planning for what happens if SHTF. Unfortunately, it seems he’s underestimated them.

Caught in the middle of a clash between Light and Dark, Alex signs on to investigate a rumor of mages harvesting magical creatures for their life-force—a process as dangerous as it is disgusting. As he doesn’t want the research to fall into the wrong hands (or any hands, preferably), Alex is set on destroying the process before any other magical creatures can die. But it seems he’s underestimated just how much some mages are willing to go for a chance at more power. And while they’ll happily kill him in order to gain it, is he willing to do the same in order to prevent its use? Or will he step aside while his new allies grow much stronger, and maybe him as well?

Sonder was looking in my direction as I walked back into the room. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard a bang.”
“Rats.”
“And something that sounded like a scream?”
“Big rats.”

Better than the first one, albeit with a slower start and a slightly more divergent plot. Still, when it all comes together the story takes off. A couple missteps relating to later books and the blending of plot lines ruin what could’ve been a better sophomore effort, but I promise you, the series does get better the later in it one reads.

While a better read than Fated, Cursed is still not yet indicative of Jacka hitting his stride. The plot is certainly more intricate than the fairly straightforward fetch quest of its predecessor, but “more intricate” does not always mean “better”. Indeed, with a slower start and a more divergent plot, Cursed gets bogged down in expectation and ends up a muddle of threads and plot-lines—and something which confuses the lore come later books. That said, with far better character personality and development, it really gets the series moving from some pair of related books to something which one day might comprise a good series. And hey—it does.

Despite its quagmire of plot-devices and threads, Cursed is never a challenge to read—at least once past the 40-page mark. Make it there and you shouldn’t have any more problems. It’s not that making it through these first forty is all that difficult; it’s an interesting setup, building up the plot via lore that would’ve been nice in the first book. It’s just that, unlike the previous entry, Cursed doesn’t stamp on the accelerator and leave it to get the reader immersed. Instead, it builds events up a bit—then stomps down.

I really don’t have too many thoughts on this one. I mean, it shows the classic “sophomore slump” common to new series, but the “slump” isn’t any worse than the original. In fact in some ways it’s better. My recollection is still that the series only goes up from here, but I suppose I should amend that now. While I know that later books get to be the kind of thing you can devour in about a day—it’s not quite here yet. But “nothing after Fated gets any worse” doesn’t sound as good. Taken (Book #3), I remember as being really good, Hidden (Book #5) taking everything to another level. As for Books 4 & 6… well, I guess we’ll just have to see. Check back next month for the review of Taken, and for more on Benedict Jacka.

Black Water Sister – by Zen Cho (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace Books; May 11, 2021

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

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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!

Fated – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #1

Urban Fantasy

Ace; February 28, 2012 (US)
Orbit; March 1, 2012 (UK)

278 pages (paperback)

Author Website

Goodreads
StoryGraph

3.5 / 5 ✪

Alex Verus is part of another world hidden in plain sight. A mage himself, he owns a magic shop in Camden, a little on the nose perhaps, but not unheard of—much like a certain guy who advertises in the phonebook under “Wizard”. Comparatively, Verus’ life is quiet by comparison—something he’s quite a fan of. See, for years Alex has done his best to remain under the radar, out of everyone’s business but his own.

But when the Council comes calling, it seems there’s little chance of that continuing. See, Alex is a diviner, meaning that while he doesn’t have access to any kind of flashy magic like the ability to shoot flames or ice or force, the ability to raise the dead or create vast armies of constructs, the ability to heal or snuff out life with a touch and a thought—he does have the ability to make people very, very nervous by reading their every move for every interaction. Now, divining isn’t a science or anything like you see on TV; he can’t foretell anyone’s death (unless it happens to be in the very close future), he doesn’t tell fortunes, and no, he can’t predict the lottery. What it is is probability and chance—two things Verus has extensive experience with, and have not only kept him alive, but made him very good at his job.

It’s this that the Council is after. And they’re desperate.

So when Alex turns them down, they don’t take it well. Fortunately for the Council, the next group to come calling are a group of Dark Mages, and they ask a great deal less politely. See, Dark mages are consumed with power beyond anything else—anything they want, they take, and if you’re not strong enough to resist them, then it’s not anything you deserve having. The strong lead; the weak follow.

So when Alex turns them down, they take it even more poorly. Soon he has cause to rethink the Council’s offer, but there’s still concern. Because when Verus sees the object in question, he has great misgivings giving such a thing to either side. In a perfect world, Alex might just walk away and let the two go to war over it. But this isn’t a perfect world. So it begs the question: just what is he going to do now?

‘ “What’s motivating you?”
“Well… right now, staying alive would be good.”
Morden shook his head. “ Oh, I think you can do better than that.”
“Um, staying alive is a pretty big motivation for me.” ‘

Thus begins the Alex Verus reread!

With part 1 of 12 successfully complete, I’ve slightly better hopes of accomplishing this feat in 2022, though most of the challenge is still ahead of me. And I have quite an ambitious idea for just what it may entail. While I’m a big fan of the series, I’ve only actually read one of the entries before—and it wasn’t Fated.

So here it is: a return to the roots of one of my favorite urban fantasy series. And… it’s okay. Pretty decent, even. The first book, at least.

Fated isn’t the greatest read ever, nor is it the best beginning to a series that I’ve ever read. It’s okay—though obviously the work of a relatively new author. There’s not much depth, not much character development (although we spend most of the time exploring Alex and his history, so that’s not any great surprise). The first great disappointment is in the supporting cast. They’re… kinda shallow. By which I mean they don’t have a whole lot of substance to them, or any kind of development or history that’s worth caring about. As a returning reader I can tell you that some of them flesh out quite nicely in the future—just not in Fated.

The first time I read this, I stumbled regularly over the first 100 pages or so. It took me much longer to get into the story, which is a bit of an issue in a 300 page book. This time, I had no such trouble getting into the story. I really moved along quite quickly once the plot got rolling—and I managed to get into it much easier since I had a vague idea of where it was headed.

“ If there’s one thing all diviners share, it’s curiosity. We can’t really help it; it’s just a part of who we are. If you dug out a tunnel somewhere in the wilderness a thousand miles from anywhere and hung a sign on it saying, Warning, this leads to the Temple of Horrendous Doom. Do not enter, ever. No, not even then, you’d get back from lunch to find a diviner already inside and two more about to go in.

Come to think about it, that might explain why there are so few of us. “

As I said, this is obviously an early effort by a recent author. But what does that mean? Well, in this case it means that it’s not as polished, not as refined, not as immersive as their later work, once they’ve established their writing style and have some experience under their belt. It does seem to be thought out and written according to some plan, as such not wandering around waiting for something to happen. There’s a story pretty much straight out of the gate, and while it’s not very innovative (at least at first), it certainly doesn’t lack for creativity either. The language is also a bit fiddly, but it’s not like there are grammatical or punctuation errors or anything. It just… sometimes takes the long way to say things. And hell, some authors do that more as their career expands. It’s not even something you’d certainly notice. It’s just not… the same language the author uses in later books—once he’s really developed a feel for these things.

The thing that didn’t change was its entertainment value. I found this just as entertaining—if not more—the second time around. When I first read Fated back in 2016, it took just short of two weeks (but then there are many reasons for that). This time around, it took me about three days. And while I have to admit it was a very straightforward plot (at least at first)—it was quite enjoyable. Even more so knowing how the story grows from here. It’s honestly a bit like Storm Front (by Jim Butcher, first entry in the Dresden Files) in that it’s not the author’s best story, but it’s definitely enjoyable, certainly entertaining, gets the series off on solid footing, and sets the stage for what’s to come. And there is in fact a nod to the Dresden Files in the early pages: ‘ I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phonebook under “Wizard”… ‘—so there’s that.

TL;DR

For those of you who didn’t want to read my jaunt down memory lane—yeah, whatever. The short of it is that Fated isn’t the best book out there. It smacks of being written by a relatively new author—characters don’t have a whole lot of substance, and aren’t developed much; the plot was straightforward and far from innovative; and, in my first time through at least, I had trouble getting in to the story. But while not terribly innovative, the world is certainly creative and well-told. Another world hidden within our own, but this one not entirely out of sight. Alex Verus isn’t a flashy mage, but a thoughtful one. And he’s not without his skill. It’s a great intro, as these things go, and the series only gets better from here!

The series continues with Cursed, which—to be honest—I’m drawing a blank on. I mean, I remember liking it, but not any specifics. Huh. I guess you’ll have to check back in February to learn more. Or… you could always just read it yourself first:)

Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher (KK’s Review)

Dresden Files #17

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 29, 2020

432 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the Dresden Files up to date!

Recap

So many events have led to this moment. Destruction of the Red Court of vampires. Never-ending conflicts with Order of the Blackened Denarius. Winter Court. Summer Court. Za-Lords Guard. Friends and foes have now come together and Harry Dresden is now against a supernatural opponent like no other. A Titan! And to think this is just because everyone wanted to gather for some Peace Talks. 


Rambling Review (unspecific spoilers ahead)

I was extremely excited when it was announced that Peace Talks and Battle Ground would be released only months apart. And then I made the huge mistake of NOT READING Battle Ground immediately upon arrival. I’d even purposefully reread the entire series to prepare for Peace Talks because I had a feeling that these two books were leading to another major change in the Dresden universe. However, when I finally got to the book, I couldn’t remember anything from the previous one. Internal monologue: “So…who’re we fighting again? Right, right…big bad Titan. Okay. Wait, what happened to Thomas again? Oh yeah. Ok, I think I remember every-WAIT WHO IS THIS CHARACTER? Oh…yeah they’re from that book. And whatabouthatitem…???” And on and on and on….Books that focus heavily on battles are not my favorite. I have a hard time picturing how the characters move through a space and I’m more interested in what happens after the fight. I’m ashamed to admit I COMPLETELY MISSED Butters turning into (essentially) a Jedi in a previous Dresden because my brain was saying, “Fight, fight, punch punch…okay, what’s next?” And Battle Ground is essentially one massive fight. Sure, there are some mini side events and conversations that provide a brief respite from the battle, but it’s mostly fighting. And it’s not my favorite. And I probably missed something, again….Major character death in this book. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. The death happened, Harry reacted to it in the moment, but he had to deal with big baddy. At the end of the book, there were pages of Harry talking about the death with other characters. Perhaps I was caught up in the main battle to truly feel the impact of the character’s passing or maybe it was the way the character passed, but the end of the book was more emotional for me than the moment the character died….Bob is one of the best characters. More Bob, please. Let Bob stay with Harry!…  Mab’s deadline was unnecessary. It felt like a way to justify some character relationship in future books. Don’t force me to think about that when I’m still processing another major emotion. Again, unnecessary….The ending of the book was the best part. Some family reconciliation (FINALLY). A bit of mystery to tickle the brain. Harry takes back something that’s his. I like all of that. The whole story shouldn’t rely on a solid ending though. Perhaps on a reread I’ll find more enjoyment in the battle arc, but at this time I’m pleased enough with the book to know I’m still excited to continue with the series.


Reader Remarks

As previously noted, I’m a fast reader. I’ve always liked the Dresden books because the flow of conversation and pacing of the book always keeps me entertained. But, I will never get over completely missing Butters using the sword as a lightsaber. Greatest reader shame of my life.   

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.

Risen – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #12

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; December 7, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many, many thanks to Ace Books and Berkley Publishing for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Well, we’ve reached the end. It’s been twelve books, most of them a legitimate joy to read, but the final—yes, FINAL—book in the Alex Verus series is nigh. This is a series I’d very much like to revisit, perhaps as soon as next year, and reread from the very beginning.

But first, the end.

Power doesn’t need a purpose: power is its own purpose. It is the only goal that has value in itself, because it is the means by which all other goals are achieved.

The path for Alex Verus has been long and hard—from a former dark apprentice to an independent, non-council nobody running a shop in Camden, to one of the premier independent mages in all of Britain—but perhaps no part of it has been more difficult than what he faces now. An army of Djinn, led by Anne, his former lover. Or, what used to be Anne. Instead, what wears her face nowadays is a marid, a sultan-level djinn once in considered the greatest threat to humanity’s future. Once, and possibly again.

For the marid is raising an army—and using Anne to do so, much as she once used it—and preparing a ritual that will allow it to possess every mage in Britain, or perhaps, the world. Luckily all the mages in Britain have realized the threat. Now they gather, light and dark and independent all together, setting aside their differences and disagreements in order to fight on the same side until this most horrible of enemies has been defeated!

Or, you know, until it’s really worth it to stab the other in the back. Say they have like a fruit cup or something.

The Council don’t trust Drakh in the least, which is good because neither does Alex. The problem is, he doesn’t really trust the Council either. And the cost of his cooperation with the two is going to be really, really high.

But he’s picked up a few allies of his own. Minus Anne and Variam—currently possessed by djinn—Alex still has Luna (the mage Vesta) on his side, as well as the blink fox, Hermes. He’s also picked up a wayward dark apprentice. And, well, Landis probably won’t betray him. He’s got this made.

But when all cards are on the table, Alex isn’t sure what he’s going to do. If it comes down to it, will he be able to face Richard alone? Will he be able to save Caldera, or Variam, or Anne? Will he be able to stop the djinn, and save the world? And will he be able to do it all before the Fateweaver consumes him, and transforms him into a block of stone?

Man, what a ride!

Admittedly, Risen wasn’t quite the same ride as Forged, as we certainly know what to expect. In general, at least. There’s a war on, and it’s not going to stop until one of the two sides is dead. In that sense, it’s a bit like Battle Ground. But fortunately, it’s also completely different.

In Battle Ground, it was us or them. In Risen, sides are a lot more complicated. Everyone is—on some level, at one time or another—planning to betray everyone else. It’s just the where and when, if or if not it’ll happen, and where the chips fall when it does. There’s also a lot more preparation, a lot of calm before and between the storm. There’s a certain amount of tension in Risen that keeps building, on and on through the fighting, through the breaks and planning and backstabbing. Where Battle Ground just went action action action and tried to constantly push the pace, Risen doesn’t just throw out what has worked for the series to date. There’s still the same amount of intrigue and mystery, it’s just the stakes are higher this time. And this IS the end—one way or another.

It also remembers to be funny every now and then. While Alex has gotten a whole lot darker in recent entries, he’s still the same bottle of pent up cynicism and sarcasm we’ve come to know and love.

“So… you’re guessing?”
“Pretty much,” I said. “And if I’m wrong, I just screwed everything up in a really major way and the Council are going to be very, very pissed off.”

TL;DR

I don’t really know what else to say about this. I loved Risen. I loved Forged and Fallen before it. Marked and Bound and Burned before them. And Veiled and Hidden and Chosen and Taken and Cursed. And Fated. With the way the Dresden series has stumbled recently, this may just be my favorite urban fantasy series of all time. In part because everyone loves an underdog. But once they have transcended underdogdom, and maybe even defected to the dark side… what then? Are they still the hero; someone to root for, someone to love, to relate to, to look up to, to enjoy? Or are they something else, something they can never come back from? The Verus series tells the story of Alex as he wanders down this path. As he confronts difficult situations—ones that have no perfect solution—and makes his own decisions. He’s not perfect. He’s not evil. But he sure ain’t all that good either. He’s human. And… he has light at the end of the tunnel. In an age when so many series just go on and on and on, Benedict Jacka knows when to stop. I think that’s one example of why Alex Verus is great. Yeah, I would’ve loved to see more of him; just another book, or two, or ten. I would’ve read them and I would’ve loved them. Until I didn’t. Alternatively, the series could just end right now. An ending not for me, but for Alex. An ending he not only deserves, but has earned ten times over. So if you’re a fan of urban fantasy and haven’t read Alex Verus, I say this: yeah, the first book isn’t perfect—but it’s headed somewhere special, and you’ll want to be there at the close, at the end of all things.

The Cloud Prison – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

The Loyalist Witch #2 / Thieftaker #5

Historical Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Lore Seekers Press; June 22, 2021

112 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

Contains Spoilers for The Witch’s Storm, Part 1 of the Loyalist Witch, and minor spoilers for the Thieftaker series leading up to now.

The Cloud Prison is Part II of the Loyalist Witch arc and continues the right where The Witch’s Storm left off.

October 24, 1770 – Boston

It’s been four days since the massive hurricane descended upon Boston. Some streets remain flooded, debris still litters others. Over a hundred people perished, and many more are missing. But life goes on, and—for the people of the Colonies—that means the trial of Captain Thomas Preston is about to begin. While everything is proceeding smoothly, Ethan Kaille lingers by the courthouse on the lookout for trouble.

He hasn’t seen Charlotte Whitcomb, the Tory Witch, since the massive hurricane struck, but knows better than to assume she has fled. Or perished. For the cause of liberty remains. And the Crown would see it crushed.

Indeed, shortly after the start of the trial, Whitcomb herself confronts Ethan. Rather than underestimating him again, this time she has collected herself a bit of insurance, in the form of Deborah, Diver’s betrothed. Feeling that Ethan’s friend’s fiancé is more than enough collateral, she offers the two men a fair trade—a life for a life. And, in return for Deborah, she expects them to kill Samuel Adams, the very heart and soul of the rebellion.

While I’ve simplified it a bit here, there’s more to Whitcomb’s scheme than just a life for a life. It’s more elaborate—and maybe just a touch convoluted. See, she takes Deborah and imprisons her in a cloud above Boston Harbor (hence the novella’s title, the Cloud Prison). In exchange for her freedom, Whitcomb demands that Ethan and/or Diver kill Samuel Adams.

The honest wording in the text implies that she believes that Ethan will do exactly this, in order to save the life of his friend. And if Diver decides to do the deed instead—that’s fine too. But should she really understand Ethan Whitcomb would know that he has no intention of doing this. Which—if you’re all caught up on the series—you should know as well. Thing is, I really thought she took his measure in the first Part. And Whitcomb isn’t a stupid, blind, vain, Crown asset. She may be conniving and even a bit ruthless, but she isn’t outright cold and calculating. Making it all a bit out of character to assume that Ethan would just accede to her demands.

Even so, it’s not a bad story. It still makes Kaille jump through a fair amount of hoops. Gather intel, assets, friends, and weapons of his own, before he confronts her. And just because he would never kill Samuel Adams just to get Deborah back, that doesn’t mean Diver wouldn’t.

It’s another good read; maybe just a bit less enjoyable than the first one. But still strong, and entertaining. The Thieftaker world is always a joy to dive into, even though the authenticity of it all is ruined a bit by the sample size (novella or less). I can’t wait to continue with the trilogy and see what it will set up for the future of the series to come!

This second Part of the Loyalist Witch sets up a dramatic showdown come Part III: the Adams Gambit, which has been out since July 27 of this year.