Book Review: The Imaginary Corpse – by Tyler Hayes

noob #1, standalone (?)

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Angry Robot; September 10, 2019

321 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Angry Robot. All opinions are my own.

The Imaginary Corpse is an adorable book in a number of ways. And yet it holds a darkness within that’s surprising for both its intensity and its depth. It’s a cross between Toy Story and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, under the night sky of a film-era detective noir. Detective Tippy is a stuffed, yellow triceratops. Yes, you read that right. He’s the head and only detective at the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. There’s nothing he likes more than root beer floats, long rides in the dryer—and of course—his creator, Sandra.

The Stuffed Animal Detective Agency operates in the Stillreal, a place where capital-F Friends end up when their creators are forced to abandon them. It’s hard to explain, but the book does a stellar job—I’ll give it a quick shot. You see, some imaginary friends are just that: Imaginary. But if a friend is imbibed with such a force of love or affection, or detail to the extent that they’re very real to their creator, they become a Friend. Alternatively, a nightmare that frightens and terrifies can often feel very real in its own right, thus becoming a Friend as well (albeit a different kind). Now, most often these Friends will be parted with or forgotten when a child outgrows them, discarded when an artist or writer moves on or their commission is canceled. But occasionally, there’s an event that leads to a Friend being abandoned. Some trauma, some insight, some… thing else. And the Friend is forcibly ripped from their creator, never to return. These Friends end up in the Stillreal.

Going to the Stillreal is a one-way trip. Friends can get hurt or injured there—most experience trauma, anxiety or worse from their forced separation from their creator—but once arriving in the Stillreal, they can’t actually die. That is, until they start.

When Tippy witnesses this, the case begins. It will lead down paths even dark by Playtime Town standards. It will force Detective Tippy to confront his own issues—the trauma, the loss, and his mounting depression. It may even change him for the better, should he and the rest of the Stillreal survive it. For even in Playtime Town does darkness loom, and Tippy may not have enough in his pocket flask of root beer to see him through it.

What to say about the Imaginary Corpse? Mostly good things, I promise.

I mean, it’s good. It’s definitely worth reading! It’s in a class all on its own, for a whole host of reasons—but mostly because it is adorable. The yellow triceratops lead, the amount of hugs offered and given, the Rootbeerium… And yet the issues these Friends deal with draw a number of parallels to everyday life. The trauma, the loss, the anxiety, the depression they feel; all seems a tangible, weighted thing, that I struggled with in my read through. Some have overcome the lot, though most still struggle on valiantly in a world they can’t escape, a living memory of a life they’re never to revisit, the memory of their creator, their best friend still fresh in their mind and yet irretrievable at the same time. Tippy walks a fine line—love, hope on one end with depression, darkness and loss lurking on the other side.

Tippy may be one of my favorite characters ever. From his time with Sandra, Tippy was imbued with Detective Stuff, a kind of sixth-sense that helped him know things, feel things, gather clues almost as if by magic—as it might seem to a small child who witnesses detectives doing such. Despite this yellow triceratops being filled with no more than root beer and stuffing, he’s more human than most of what you’ll find in media nowadays.

While Hayes starts with an interesting premise, a fantastical setting and a generally entertaining plot, the Imaginary Corpse falls short of perfection. The mystery lets the story down, sadly. And the Detective Stuff—while a powerful tool—is not enough to carry the story by itself. A couple of times I had to backtrack and reread a section where Tippy connected the dots, because it didn’t exactly make sense. Occasionally, the Detective Stuff would just bypass key details and leap on to the next, like they were too hard to explain or write. Though I suppose that’s a good use for a superpower, innit?

TL;DR

The Imaginary Corpse is a fantasy-mystery-noir, set in a strange but delightful world, filled with some of my favorite characters of all-time. And I really can’t say enough good things about it. An immensely entertaining read, the book takes its readers through the trauma and darkness—coaxing them all the while with hope and acceptance, before finally reaching a hard-fought conclusion that is neither, yet somehow both. While the novel’s mystery may be its biggest weakness, the Imaginary Corpse manages to tell the story it set out to, in the manner it set out to, while toeing the line between dark and adorable. And that above all else is its greatest triumph. Quite the debut from Tyler Hayes—one I’ll not be forgetting any time soon!

Book Review: Flex – by Ferrett Steinmetz

‘Mancer #1

Alt History, Urban Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 3, 2015

423 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

When I see the word bureaucromancy, what comes to mind are singing muppets, dancing file folders, and papers flying around in a tornado. Somehow, when I try to picture this as a method used to fight evil, done by a skinny white guy with one foot—the whole thing falls apart. Actually, the entire book kept picturing Paul Tsabo as a Louis lookalike out of Left 4 Dead, made difficult by the author attempting to curtail my imagination with the constant reminders that Tsabo was white. Thrown in videogamemancy, crystallized magic that can be eaten, and, well, just all the bureaucracy… and here you have Flex.

Flex is an alternate history urban fantasy with an interesting (if bizarre) magic system. Its’ users—known as ‘Mancers—have the ability to affect time and space and the laws of physics with their magic, but these abilities are weak at best. Their real talent lies in the ability to concoct a solid-state, edible magic—called ‘Flex’—which endows the user with the ability to spit in the face of logic, reason, and physics and pretty much make their own destiny. Until it wears off and the Flux hits. And they typically die. Violently.

Former cop Paul Tsabo is an insurance adjustor working for Samaritan Mutual, specializing in any claim involving ‘mancy. Seeing as Samaritan doesn’t cover ‘mancy related cases, and since magic is a fickle beast in nature—Paul is in high demand. Not to mention, as a cop, Tsabo was responsible for many, many ‘Mancer arrests, until the time where he lost his foot and was forced to retire.

The scene opens with a murder. Anathema has begun her spree of terror—a killing via the Flux of her Flex—one death that will soon give way to many. And it starts with Paul Tsabo.

Though ‘Mancy kills the intro character and his date, it also saves Paul Tsabo and his daughter. And yet there’s an issue. Samaritan will (shockingly) not pay the reconstruction surgery for his daughter, Aliyah, who has been horribly burned. And so Paul is out to prove to them that he’s worth it: by hunting down and capturing Anathema. So begins the adventure that will lead Tsabo on a merry chase, kill hundreds of people, involve sex, more sex and so, so much violence.

It was a pretty good read—good plot, sub-standard setting and lore, interesting and unique characters—and one that I really don’t have too much issue with. My only real issue was with the sheer amount of sex and violence within. I was thoroughly unprepared for it. If you have any delicate sensibilities, be forewarned! Or maybe skip it. Otherwise… Flex is highly entertaining, if weird. I mean, it can be really, really strange sometimes. But it’s still good. I even took a two month break in the middle (there were a couple other books I really had to get through) and was able to pick back up as if nothing had happened.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s like a good beer: bold and refreshing, but not too complex.

Book Review: Uncanny Collateral – by Brian McClellan

Valkyrie Collections #1

Urban Fantasy

April 2, 2019

151 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

I purchased this directly from Brian McClellan, via his website, during his summer sale. I think it was… sub-$4-something? Anyway, hence the lack of a publisher above.

Uncanny Collateral is a decent yet wildly entertaining urban fantasy set in a completely unbelievable world. I really enjoyed the adventure, and had absolutely no problem reading it—but if McClellan was going for a realistic earth urban fantasy… it was a wide miss.

Alek Fitz is a reaper, a soul collection agent that works for a supernatural company that freelances on behalf of the Lords of Hell. Mostly he collects upon deals made with the Lords—souls sold for wealth, fame or power. Based out of Cleveland, he is in the midst of the supernatural, with all manner of loa, vampires, imps, trolls, and whatnot inhabiting the world around him. Despite being a literal slave to his owner, Ada, he seems to enjoy his job, or at least has come to terms with it.

When Alek is assigned a case from Death, however, it seems the terms have changed.

To find what Death seeks he must rely upon an imprisoned Jinn, a handful of somewhat-friends and tentative allies, but mostly his own intelligence, skill and instinct. And meanwhile, someone’s trying to kill him and steal away his closest friend—something Alek is less than keen on.

As I mentioned before, I had no problem reading this. It was good: entertaining, interesting, action-packed. Also, it wasn’t realistic.

You see a lot in Urban Fantasy, but mostly magical worlds that exist alongside our own—with us non-magical folk none the wiser. To this end, many series have Pacts, secrets, whatever to protect our world from theirs. Uncanny Collateral uses a secret government agency to keep the worlds separate. Except, the secret agency isn’t that… secret? Also, it seems like the author did next to no research into how agencies, police, whatever work. So it’s like, a thing that everyone takes for granted even though it’s loose as heck.

I could go on about it, but sufficient to say: the story is solid, the world-building is not. But so long as you don’t question it too much (it’s only a 150 page story, after all) there’s no problem. Uncanny Collateral is fun and exciting, somewhat interesting, but not deep, nor realistic.

Book Review: David Mogo: Godhunter – by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Noob #1 or standalone

Urban Fantasy

Abaddon; July 9, 2019

386 pages (ebook)

2.5 / 5 ✪

NetGalley furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

David Mogo: Godhunter is a study in contrast.

Looking back on it, there were so many things that annoyed me about it and yet I still can’t bring myself to give it a bad rating. That said, I did lower my initial rating due to the sheer amount of said annoyances and the fact that they did not sit well. The fact is, DM:G does just enough right to make up for its generally mediocre plot, confusing explanations, horrible inconsistency and just odd, uneven pacing.

First off, DM:G isn’t really one full story. I mean… it’s a series of connected, consecutive events, divided into three parts: Godhunter, Firebringer, and Warmonger. Firebringer is set 6 months after the events of Godhunter. The first chapter of it sets up something completely different only to immediately ditch it in the second and continue with the overarching story. It’s such a departure that it throws off whatever flow the plot had established before. The 2nd and 3rd parts seem much more whole, as Warmonger is set only 10 days after Firebringer.

Godhunter opens with David Mogo and a potential client negotiating a job.

As you might have guessed, David Mogo is a god hunter. Something made necessary by the events of the Falling, where the gods were ejected from their plane and forced upon our own. For the most part, David hunts godlings; those lesser entities that have lost their way and made homes in people’s gardens, garages and trees. Upon capture, he looses them on the outskirts of Lagos, where they’ll stay out of trouble. He does not mess with High gods, nor capture anything. And yet, this is exactly what the client is after. Ajala is a local Baále—like a clan chieftain, or duke—and a wizard to boot. And he’s after a pair of high gods (twins), to be captured and delivered to him, no questions asked.

David Mogo initially refuses, but ultimately ends up taking the job.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

For not only is Ajala a renowned wizard attempting to use the gods’ power to overthrow the government’s rule, he’s also but a puppet for some shadowy force, some even greater power. And it falls to David to defeat not only Ajala, but the Baále’s masters as well.

The setting and world-building of DM:G alone is reason enough to read it. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, even at the start of the book I was already outside the realm of urban fantasy I’m used to. Even though the story never leaves the city—only hinting at the country, the continent beyond—the setting never feels crowded and is always refreshing and interesting. Even though Warmonger is set in a comparatively drab locale, it gets by through intermittent side-trips to nearby, vibrant locations.

There were several terms in DM:G I had to look up; I’m not terribly familiar with African folklore, terms, or Nigeria specifically. For the most part, none of these had a satisfactory English translation (not every word translates well, after all—it’s like how Inuit has so many words that all translate to just ‘snow’ in English) so when there’s a word like that, I’ve no issue with it being rendered in another language. The main issue I did have concerned the dialogue. In the text, it was billed as English, but was really some kinda pidgin (a hybridization between two languages). I could catch the meaning of the general conversations from context, and the fact that a lot of English words were involved. A lot of the dialogue was just filler, or greetings, or banal stuff, so it didn’t matter. At first, even, the pidgin made it feel more authentic, more Nigerian. When it got into backstory, insight, or anything technical or spiritual—I often had no clue. There was one bit in particular where Papa Udi was set to drop some bombshell regarding his history with another character, and the resulting conversation was so incomprehensible that I swore at the book and had to resist the urge to throw it at the wall (which is never a good idea when reading an ebook).

There’s more than a bit of stutter in the story; just ODD pacing, all over the place. Though it’s especially bad on the lead up to the epic conclusion. And yet, the conclusion is so epic I found myself not caring over the build-up.

There are so many important details that are never mentioned, it’s kind of amazing. I actually had to edit my review down quite a bit, as there wasn’t room to complain about everything that annoyed me. So I’ll just list a few here. Lack of explanation; lack of backstory; realism in rights, acceptance, homophobia, to name a few; consistency; characters, settings, story items that are introduced and immediately abandoned (not killed off, just never mentioned again); the execution of so many things.

DM:G is so obviously a debut novel. It is riddled with annoyances, missteps, even flat-out mistakes that the author might not have ever considered. It’s well-written, language-wise. Just not so much, plot-wise. And yet, there is a certain charm to it. For the amount it tries and fails, there is are a number of occasions where it tries something new and succeeds. At no time did I find it unreadable, unpalatable, or awful. Most often, there was something annoying, frustrating, or inconsistent. Now, it’s entirely possible you might find one (or all) of its flaws unacceptable. But there’s also a chance you’ll find one of its triumphs ingratiating. And another chance you’ll be just as flummoxed as I am trying to rate it. For, if David Mogo: Godhunter did one thing truly well, it got my attention. I’ll be anticipating more from Suyi Davies Okungbowa—and I’m sure his work will improve with experience and time.

BTW- The cover is AMAZING. Dunno who did it, but it’s just incredible.

Review: Ghosts of Gotham – by Craig Schaefer

Standalone

Mystery, Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

47North; April 9, 2019

427 pages

DNF (No rating)

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Ghosts of Gotham was described to me as a “mystery-thriller with supernatural elements”, something like the early Preston & Child books before they got all… well, bad. So I was completely unprepared when the story went sideways, entering a realm of witchcraft, demigods and immortals. What it really should’ve been described as was a novel of conflicting genres. The first third doesn’t mention any kind of supernatural forces, beyond saying that they’re a hoax. When the “supernatural” element of the supernatural-thriller shows up—it’s all at once. No build. Then we have to deal with it as any first sequence magic book introduces us to its magic system. I thought this slowed both the story and lost the mystery while things were explained. Wasn’t particularly smooth, though also not the reason I stopped.

Actually, there were two elements that really killed my interest in this book.

First, the relationship of Maddie and Lionel. Honestly, I thought the story picked up when Maddie was introduced as a POV. We got to see things from a different perspective, travel the paths to an objective a different route, not to mention the limited interaction between the two was quite entertaining. I felt the story slowed when Maddie and Lionel hooked up, the disconnect between the two shrank, the paths they walked independent of one another withered away, and the book fell completely to the mystery. And it was quite the mystery, with unexpected twists and turns. It was not, however, enough to keep me invested in the plot.

The second was the supernatural itself—or, really, Lionel’s reaction to it. At some point he’s quoted as saying that the realm of magic is “something he’s been searching for his whole life”, which is why he’s made a living defrauding charlatans and fakes. The ease at which he takes to the supernatural world in Ghosts, however, is… out of character. At other points, he says things like that “he knew this time was different” because of all kinds of ridiculous things. The timbre of someone’s voice. The goosebumps he got from thinking about someone. The look in someone’s eyes. The… please don’t get me started on the love scene.

I made it to a little past that, but it really was the last straw. I wanted to like this, I saw so many good reviews of it, but I just couldn’t. And I don’t waste my time with books I can’t stand, just like how I don’t throw my kindle off the wall. Anymore. It’s old and fragile enough as it is.

Since this was a DNF (I made it to the 70% mark, but hey) I can’t rate it. I’d even hazard to recommend it. As far as I can tell, I’m one of the few people that didn’t enjoy Ghosts of Gotham.

Huh, sucks.

I DO LOVE the cover, though. So, there’s that.

The Book Untraveled: Flex – by Ferrett Steinmetz

‘Mancer #1

Angry Robot; March 3, 2015

432 pages

I’ve heard good things about Flex, including that it has one of the most inventive magic systems ever. Moreover, I’ve heard that the entire series is on point and pretty much a must-read. The blurb is as follows:

FLEX: Distilled magic in crystal form. The most dangerous drug in the world. Snort it, and you can create incredible coincidences to live the life of your dreams.

FLUX: The backlash from snorting Flex. The universe hates magic and tries to rebalance the odds; maybe you survive the horrendous accidents the Flex inflicts, maybe you don’t.

PAUL TSABO: The obsessed bureaucromancer who’s turned paperwork into a magical Beast that can rewrite rental agreements, conjure rented cars from nowhere, track down anyone who’s ever filled out a form.

But when all of his formulaic magic can’t save his burned daughter, Paul must enter the dangerous world of Flex dealers to heal her. Except he’s never done this before – and the punishment for brewing Flex is army conscription and a total brain-wipe.

I mean, it SOUNDS pretty good. And some of my friends recommend it highly. It’s been on my list of books I’d like to read for the past couple years, and I’d quite like to check it off before Flex makes a third. But I haven’t gotten around to it yet, for a few reasons. One, it’s been somewhat off my radar until the last year or so. Two, it’s proven difficult to locate a copy at a decent price (in my opinion). My library, in its infinite wisdom, owns Fix (‘Mancer Book 3)—but neither of the first two. Angry Robot books aren’t terribly easy to find in my little secluded nook of the world. Or… cranny? I mean, I could just get an ebook version, but the resale value of such a purchase is nonexistent. I’ll probably end up getting it online—I tend to buy most of my books online, as the library does have many that I’d otherwise find in a local bookstore—but wanted to exhaust the possibility of buying local first. And I’ve seen it for sub-$4 around-places, so I’ll probably accrue it at some point soon.

In a related note, Steinmetz has a new book, The Sol Majestic, out in June. It looks pretty cool, though I’d really like to give Flex a try first. If there’s anyone reading this who’s read Flex—it any good?