Hidden – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #5

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 2, 2014

293 pages (mass market)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Chosen, and minor spoilers for Books #1-3 of the Alex Verus series.

Following the events of Chosen, Alex Verus finds himself at odds with many of his former friends. Killing a bunch of teenagers—regardless of the reason—will do that. Both Sonder and Anne, two of his closest friends and allies, now refuse to talk to him, preferring to go it alone. With Sonder this isn’t much an issue; an up and coming mage on the Council, Sonder has his pick of allies. But with Anne—who is shunned by the Council and its mages and apprentices alike—this leaves her increasingly on her own, and unprotected.

So when Anne is kidnapped, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Despite Alex being on her bad side, he is still as desperate as anyone to find her. Even going so far as to work with the Council Keepers and Sonder.

But when it comes to light that Anne may have been taken by the dark mage Sagash, all that support suddenly dries up. Legally there’s nothing they can do—as a former apprentice to Sagash, he is well within his rights to reclaim her. Even Sonder, who regards Anne as a friend, gives up hope, leaving Alex with Luna and Variam alone.

The following rescue will take place with little supplies and nothing in the way of backup, half-assed and reckless—an Alex Verus special.

“Maybe that’s how it works in our world. The only heroes are the ones who die young.”
I gave Anne a disturbed look. “That’s a pretty depressing philosophy to live by.”
“Is it?” Anne didn’t meet my eyes. “I can’t tell anymore.”

Considering how long and how many tries it took me to reread and finish Hidden, I’d still consider it a good book—even head and shoulders above Jacka’s earlier work. I pretty much just burned out on the genre (which happens to me with pretty much anything, but especially urban fantasy) and had to take a break. That said, there is a bit of a lull in the early going, after Anne is taken, but before any real action is taken to retrieve her. And it was in this lull that I was lost.

The book starts off well, with the fallout from the previous book coming to light in Alex’s early comings and goings. We get to see his decisions reflected in the faces of his friends and family; some support him and his actions, others very much do not. It’s a quiet start, but it gets going quickly enough.

Following the kidnapping, there comes a bit of a lull. It’s not egregious—only about 30-40 pages, but if you’re impatient (in general, or to read something else) than it may make or break this for you. During this lull there’s some talking, some planning, some lore; not a whole lot of action. But then come page 90, everything kicks off again—and pretty much carries this intensity through to the endgame. Once I got over that hump, everything was fine. But seeing as how I did burn out there (despite coming back to it, despite having read and enjoyed it previously), it has to be taken into consideration.

Hidden continues to expand on the lore and depth of the Alex Verus series. The world by now includes well more than simply Camden, and while it’s not completely filled in everything, you’d expect that from a series told entirely in first-person. Still, everything is as immersive as before, and there’s no break in the narrative or story. In fact, it’s all better than normal as there’s been four books of build-up before now. In terms of the overall arc, Hidden continues this quite nicely. Obviously in the interest of spoilers I’ll skip going into any detail, but I felt like it worked, and that’s what matters most.

All in all, Hidden is another great Alex Verus adventure. Yes, it has its highs and lows, but the series continues to improve from its most humble of beginnings. The series continues with Veiled, Book #6.

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

416 pages (ebook)
12hr 50m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Welcome to Titanshade, an oil boomtown grown up, struggling to find its identity in a new era, lest it collapse in on itself, just another footnote on the path of history. Cater is Titanshade’s native son, a local become homicide cop, one who knows his way around the sleazy, corrupt underside of the city that makes up his beat. But the city is so much more than that, as he is soon to learn.

Looming over the sleazy, corrupt underside exist the sleazy, corrupt businessmen and politicians that run it all. Men, women, creatures Carter has known of his whole life, but were always far too high profile for him to concern himself with.

Enter the Squib—a squat, amphibian being—a political delegate involved in funding a project aimed to save the city from itself, providing alternative energy to the dwindling oil business. While such a high-profile case would normally have been above Carter’s station, it’s all-hands on deck, as the more than just the city turns its gaze to the murder. Because in addition to being a high-profile political target, the fact that the delegate was a Squib could have dire consequences to inter-species relations. See, when a Squib bleeds, it releases a highly odorous pheromone along with its cinnamon-scented blood—the combination more than enough to drive many a human mad with lust. Many such Squibs have been killed before, but none in so gruesome a fashion or so bright a spotlight.

To make matters worse, the police already have a suspect: Carter’s adopted daughter Talena, who was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And with such a high-profile murder already filling the news, tensions between the races of Titanshade at their highest point—the pressure is on to tie everything up as quickly as possible.

And so Carter has only a short amount of time to prove Talena’s innocence, find the true killer, and do it all before the city tears itself apart. Throw in a rookie Mollenkampi (named Ajax) assigned to keep an eye on the wildcard Carter; a second Mollenkampi, Angus, who’s essentially Carter’s nemesis while still managing to be a good cop in his own right; gritty commissioner Bryyh, Carter’s boss; and the feeling even before the mystery starts, that he’s already missing something vital.

Even if he manages to pull everything together in the nick of time, Carter may still alienate everyone and everything important to him, and end up eating his gun in the process. It’s just that kind of day in Titanshade.

I’d heard good things, yet Titanshade still managed to exceed my expectations. Instead of the underwhelming mashup between a high urban fantasy and a detective/mystery, I got a thought out mystery/detective urban fantasy not unlike the Dresden Files, but one set in its own fantasy world—one with its own rules and fantastical beings and creatures and magicks. Now, this is quite an Earth-like world, but still there are key and unique differences. The different races of beings are one; Mollenkampi alongside Squibs (which are called something different that I can’t remember right now) alongside Humans alongside still others, all packed together into the same society.

Honestly, I expected this to go together a bit like the SyFy show Defiance: a unique and interesting idea, but one where all the classes of humanoids basically blend into one when you get right down to it. Instead, the author has them written and designed his creations well—with their own diets and characteristics and languages and ideals. So much so that I’ll say it again: I’m surprised that this went together so well.

The story itself is a gritty detective one, full of morally ambiguous characters and two-faced diplomats, politicians, cops, witnesses, and more. And Carter is just the gritty, hard-nosed detective to handle it. For a guy that most people seem to hate (and everyone seems to be annoyed by), Carter makes a pretty good lead. I was pretty much in his corner from the outset—though if I’d hated him too (being the sole POV), I’d’ve probably quit reading. Twists and turns affect everyone in the plot differently and this is where Carter’s interactions with his new partner, Ajax, take center stage. Carter is a hard-nose detective who’s set in his ways and doesn’t play by the rules. Ajax is a bit fresh faced, but not enough to put up with his partner’s bullshit. He bends at times, stands firm at others, but never really breaks one way or the other. This pairing actually works quite well—and makes the story.

I’d like to see where the story goes next (and if the 2nd installment is just as solid), and will hopefully get to it later in the year. While I listened to Titanshade as an audiobook—and while Books #2 & 3 are out in print—it is thus far the only book in the series that’s been professionally narrated. Not that that’s an issue. I just decided to take a wee break before switching from audio to print. I’d definitely recommend this in either format, really, but I really enjoyed the audiobook. Mikael Naramore does an excellent job bringing both Carter and the world around him to life—complete with its gritty feel and moral ambiguity. If you were after more of him, you’re in luck! I hear Book #2, Titan’s Day, is due to be recorded and/or released sometime soon; just COVID went and delayed its production. Whether or not you enjoy this via audio, print, or digitally, I’d certainly recommend its reading. Especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy or mystery, or even gritty cop dramas.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves – by Alex Jennings (Review)

Cover complements of Lisa Marie Pompilio

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 21, 2022

456 pages (paperback)

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DNF @ 254 pages

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

I’ve copied and pasted the official blurb for this (did add a bit to it); the reason will become very clear upon perusing my review.

In a fantastical version of New Orleans where music is magic, a battle for the city’s soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song in this vibrant and imaginative debut.

Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women keep the order, and where songs walk, talk and keep the spirit of the city alive. To those from Far Away, Nola might seem strange. To failed magician, Perilous Graves, it’s simply home. Then the rhythm stutters.

Nine songs of power have escaped from the magical piano that maintains the city’s beat and without them, Nola will fail. Unexpectedly, Perry and his sister, Brendy, are tasked with saving the city. They’ll need some help—but fortunately their friend (and Perry’s crush) Peaches, is equal to the task. There are also some terrible parents, some nonchalant zombies, and a whole bunch of haints. But a storm is brewing and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Even if they capture the songs, Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

So, we all know what this is about. It’s right there in the blurb. But the first time I saw it in the text, I squinted and cocked my head. Because the first time Perilous and gang bring it up is without any coaxing, investigation, or seeing/hearing of it before. It seems to just be a “oh, duh, of course that’s what we’ll do”. It’s a bit like Gandalf saying that the only way to destroy the One Ring is in the fires of Mount Doom; with ultimate confidence, but no prior mention of where this information came from. After Perilous and gang say this, they’re off on a harebrained adventure. “Harebrained” as in rash, nonsensical and completely out of nowhere.

One of the stranger issues with this book is its maturity level. I’d class it as an adult fantasy, because of language and content, despite the fact that the two main protagonists (Perry and Brendy) are 11 and 8 (I’ve no idea how old Peaches is, but I think she’s just a kid like them). Sometimes, they act like the children they are. Other times, they act like the adults they’ve yet to become. This often falls to Brendy, who flirts at a very impressive level for a girl who’s not through puberty, swears at an impressive level for any age, and shows an amazing depth-of or lack-of maturity seemingly at the flip of a coin. Perry usually acts more like an 11 year old, except when he doesn’t. The inconsistency in Ballad is infuriating—and while the it’s by no means confined to the characters—that is its most blatant.

And then there’s Casey Bridgewater. Casey is a trans woman, which seems to be the only reason she’s included. I swear this isn’t just me being cynical. As of the halfway point in the book, she doesn’t connect to Perilous or anyone he knows, anything magical in the slightest, or—as far as I can tell—even the Nola in its magical incarnation. Instead it seems that Casey’s a resident of plain old New Orleans, where she… I’m not honestly sure. Her story kept jumping around (time-wise, year-wise) for no discernible reason, but I’m sure that it was going to connect in some manner eventually. I just had a hard time caring enough to get to that point.

The language, which I initially found interesting and immersive—as well as culturally important and unique—honestly likely made things more confusing, but even without it I doubt there was a plot to be found here. I mean, I know there’s a plot—an actual one that exists. However, it just up and appears fully formed somewhere around the 200-page mark, rather than being like born or built or written in like you’d kinda expect.

While I enjoyed the concept and idea behind this Ballad, the execution just was not there. It was slow and confusing at times, and just plain boring at others. I pressed on way past the point I’d otherwise have done solely because I received a physical copy. Honestly, I think I could complain about this book for a while still. That’s often the case for titles that I’m initially excited for but then end up missing the mark so, so bad. Which the Ballad of Perilous Graves very much did.

TL;DR

I didn’t finish the Ballad of Perilous Graves, but I lasted longer than I’d’ve thought. Partly this was due to my initial excitement for the book, and in part because I received a physical copy of it. It’s not because I had any conflicting feelings regarding the plot, its characters, or the execution of either. This was not a good read for me. There may’ve been a decent story in here somewhere, but I sure didn’t find it. The story regarding the Nine Songs of Power didn’t so much evolve as it did appear, fully formed, with no mention of it prior. It was very much a “well, this is what’s happening in the city—right, we need to find the nine songs and restore order” with no explanation immediately preceding or following. It’s… I mean… sigh. Yeah. I DNFed this because of many, many reasons, but mostly as it was infuriating, boring, and I didn’t enjoy it. Read at your own peril.

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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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)

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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)

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!

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.