The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy


Big Bad by Lily Anderson

My wife and I loved the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I have read maybe twenty of the novels—most of which didn’t live up to my expectations. Then this book came along and it is a delight from start to finish. The gimmick, if you will, is that all the evil creatures of Sunnydale (now called Demondale) are actually—well not the “good” guys, but at the very least, the protagonists of the story. And Buffy herself is on an interdimensional mission to destroy all the universes where the hell mouth has been opened and “evil” has taken over. Naturally, this has the “bad” “good” guys of Demondale more than a little worried. If Buffy succeeds in touching her magical gem to the hell fire of their world, all of existence will be wiped out. But how do you get all these super bad “bad” guys to work together to save the days like heroes would?

While fan favorite evil doers from the series are trying to save their little corner of hell, Buffy is visiting world after world where monsters from the series actually won. And she’s terminating their reign of victory by literally destroying the entire universe they have taken over. She’s doing this as part of a strategy to get herself home again, but it isn’t until she reaches Demondale and finds humans like Jonathan working with Angelus and Spike that she stops to think at all about what’s she doing. But, the bad guys are still bad, right? So, the slayer has to slay them, right? And that’s the real fun of the novel—trying to figure out if anyone can survive their run in with the big bad.

A Mystic Murder by Kennedy Chase

This is a short mystery about a retired detective who also happens to be a member of a family of witches. The book starts with the detective discovering a dead body stuffed into her oven. Naturally, she finds this disturbing and unusual and worries a bit about how the small town will react to the news. (Her ancestors helped establish the town after fleeing Salem Massachusetts, and there are those who still think poorly of her and her family.)

What follows is a pretty typical investigation story. The heroine is taken on as a consultant to her old police force despite the body being found in her home. She then questions everyone possibly involved with the dead man as if she were still a cop. For about the first two-thirds of the novel, I wondered why the author bothered to make her heroine a witch. For the last third, I wished she hadn’t as suddenly magic becomes the cause of everything, diverting from an interesting investigation.

That being said, the inclusion of magic does make sense by the end and I suspect gives a clue to how this series will progress.

Bright Falls Mysteries

I Was a Teenaged Weredeer by C.T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus

I’ve enjoyed Phipps supervillain series so was happy to give this novel a try, hoping he would bring his quirky way of looking at the world of comic books to the realm of lycanthropy. Boy did he ever. I Was a Teenaged Weredeer is a fast-moving romp that mixes a very serious, thoroughly engaging mystery with a lot of snarky teenaged attitude and about five million pop references that really solidified the setting and the story. I never wanted to put it down.

The setting is also well thought out with different sorts of were-creatures living together in a world that includes vampires, ghosts, old gods, and lots of monsters. (I suppose I should consider were-creatures monsters too, but since the heroine is one, they don’t come off feeling that way.) This is a world where something new is being discovered at every turn and where the crime is deeply intertwined with a highly credible setting. Can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

I received this book from Free Audio Book in exchange for an honest review.

An American Weredeer in Michigan by C.T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus

Jane Doe and her friends are back for another deer-lightful adventure. If you liked all the endless puns and pop culture references of the first book, you’re going to love this one as well as new problems come to Bright Falls. There’s a religious cult with a leader who is disturbingly open about his villainous plans who’s planning to use the magic of Bright Falls in his scheme to take over the world. Add to that that Jane accidentally promises to help hunt down and kill an earth goddess who—while not nice—is critically important to the survival of just about everything and you have the ingredients for a great adventure.

Honestly, I couldn’t figure out how Jane was going to get out of all the messes she wandered into, but the cast is so much fun—especially the gun with the angel in it—that I wouldn’t have minded her taking twice as long to resolve all the problems. Phipps and Suttkus have found a wonderfully light-hearted way to deal with some very dark issues and I think it’s this tone that puts this series head and shoulders above so many other urban fantasies. I’ve just never read anything else in the genre that feels like the Bright Falls stories. I hope they keep writing them.

Elemental Assassin

Spider's Bite by Jennifer Estep

The opening book in the Elemental Assassin series is a fast-paced, enjoyable romp through the southern city of Ashland run by a mix of wealthy humans, elemental wizards, giants, vampires, dwarfs and what have you. Gin, the main character, a top-notch assassin known as The Spider, has a lot of sparky attitude and generally makes a fun heroine. The opening scene is perfect for capturing the assassin at her work and makes her an instantly lovable character.

The plot of the novel is that Gin is set up to take the fall for an assassination. In covering up the crime, the people behind the setup also torture and kill her mentor. Gin wants revenge and the rest of the novel chronicles her efforts to find out who is behind the betrayal and making them pay.

To complicate matters, Ashland’s one honest cop, Donovan Caine, is smack in the middle of Gin’s problems. He knows—contrary to the city’s corrupt account of events—that Gin didn’t murder the victim. He also knows she’s on the wrong side of the law. The question is, can he work with Gin to find out what really happened or will he turn on her and arrest her as his superiors want? Of course, as has become an expectation of the genre, there is tremendous sexual tension between cop and assassin, although it’s overplayed early on throwing into question just how professional Gin really is.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I do have two major problems with it in addition to the aforementioned overplaying of the sexual tension. First, in working with Donovan Caine Gin loses any pretense at being a professional. She brings him to her apartment. She introduces him to her best friend. She talks about critical details that could let him identify her in front of him. She exposes critical contacts to him all while apparently not intending to kill him when the need to work with him was done. And all of this while he is insisting he will turn on her as soon as he doesn’t need her anymore. Needless to say, this was crazy.

In addition, Gin is a stone elemental. Among her powers is her ability to harden her skin so that she is immune to little things like gunfire. Yet Gin doesn’t want to use her magic because she fears it will make her overdependent on it and weak. This might make sense when she decides to stab someone instead of collapsing a building on top of him. (She also argues that such overt use of magic would attract too much attention.) But when a fellow assassin gets the drop on her with a pistol and she refuses to make her skin hard enough to be immune to his bullets (taking a wound for her stubbornness) this makes her look stupid and insane—not the consummate professional she keeps insisting she is. To make matters worse, when she finally does use her magic to harden her skin, one of the bad guys punches rattle her when bullets don’t. This is a major problem that appears to have derived from Estep’s inability to think of a better way to threaten Gin than pointing a gun at her.

That being said, it’s still a fun story and the series shows a lot of potential.

Web of Lies by Jennifer Estep

The second book of the Elemental Assassin series has more of the strengths and weaknesses of the first. It’s got a fun main character with the right kind of bad attitude and a weakness for helping people in distress. There are good action scenes that keep you flipping pages as we watch our heroine take on the bad guys. There are a couple of different mysteries unfolding--some central to the current plot and some setting up later adventures. And the supporting cast also works pretty well.

On the downside, our assassin just can’t stop telling people what she does for a living despite being at least nominally “retired”. This is especially dumb since it is becoming apparent that the big bad fire elemental who runs Ashland is becoming interested in her. It also defies sense--there is no way that a person with Gin’s lack of a filter on her mouth could have remained an anonymous assassin for all of these years.

That being said, Gin’s new problem--helping an old friend of her dead mentor to keep from being driven off his land by a mining firm--is a good challenge for our friendly neighborhood killer of bad guys and it gives her many good opportunities to show off her talents. We also get introduced to a new potential love interest which is good because the old one (honest cop Donovan Caine) was never going to work out in the long run.

In fact, Donovan Caine is the best drawn character in the novel. He likes Gin. Frankly, he’s obsessed with her. He wants to be with her. But he is never going to be able to accept her world view. He is, at heart, an honest cop who is being forced by Gin to confront the fact that his town is too corrupt for influential villains to ever be brought to justice. Yet, that doesn’t mean that he can live with the concept that killing those villains is the only alternative. That internal conflict causes a lot of pain for both Donovan and Gin. It’s ultimately a situation that can’t go on forever and I was glad that Estep realized that and came up with a believable solution to the problem. I’d like to see more of this supporting character in the future.

Winter’s Web by Jennifer Estep

Winter’s Web is a quick short story about Jenifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin, Gin. I have only read the first few books of the series but it was easy to pick up what was going on. Gin is still full of self-confidence and attitude and the boyfriend she picked up after cop, Donovan Caine, left town is still with her. They are going to a Renaissance Festival called Winter’s Web to try and forget their problems for a while. But, something about the way people keep staring at Gin has her somewhat paranoid sense of danger screaming that there is trouble at the Festival. When three giants try to follow her about, her feelings are confirmed, so she ambushes them and things quickly go to hell. It’s a diverting short story—perfect for both old fans and for anyone thinking about giving the series a try.


Kolchak the Night Strangler by Jeff Rice

Unlike the first novel which was a completely original work, Jeff Rice wrote this from a screen play. It’s not quite as strong a book as the first one, but much of what I loved about that novel can still be found in these pages. Kolchak is still getting himself into trouble because he can’t keep his mouth shut. And he’s still unable to let go of a story even after it is obviously in his interests to do so. In record time he gets a whole new city angry at him, but he does get his man.

The mystery here is solid and Kolchak gets himself into a very tight situation by the end of the book. It’s fun from start to finish. I wish Jeff Rice had written more of these.

Kolchak the Night Stalker by Jeff Rice

This is the novel that launched a television show, a couple of television movies, and a whole bunch of spin off novels. As such, my expectations were sky high when I started the book and they were not disappointed. This is quite frankly a great mystery. Women are dying –their blood drained completely from their bodies in less than a minute. Naturally, vampires immediately occur to the reader, but the authorities are less inclined toward that explanation. Enter reporter Carl Kolchak who gets hold of the story and just can’t let it go.

As in the original Dracula, this vampire tale is really about the hunters, especially Kolchak, as he searches for the murderer and attempts to figure out how and why he is committing his crimes. He comes to the vampire conclusion faster than the police but eventually succeeds in bringing them along after they fail to stop the murderer. Then things really get interesting. Can a modern police force really admit they have stopped a vampire? And if they cannot, what do you do with the reporter whose work made saving the public possible? This is just an all-around great novel.

Lycanthropy Trilogy

Night of the Hidden Fang by T. James Logan

It’s really difficult to write a good werewolf story focused on high school kids—at least it looked that way before I read Night of the Hidden Fang. The problem isn’t that the high school kids often live a very separate life from their out of touch parents, they do. It also isn’t a problem that no one would believe the high school kids if they started talking about werewolves prowling the neighborhood, they wouldn’t. No, the break down usually comes when the high school kids insist on solving the whole problem by themselves and somehow get away with doing it without the adults ever finding out. That isn’t the way T. James Logan handles this problem in Night of the Hidden Fang and as a result he was able to surprise me again and again in the novel. At times it felt like he was “breaking the rules” and that was very good for his story.

Mia is a believable high school girl who never feels like she fits in. Because her dad was in the military before he joined the FBI, she hasn’t lived in any one place very long and she doesn’t have many good friends. She’s bullied by some of the more popular girls and suffers endless amounts of teen angst over the boy she likes but feels like she could never have. Then strange things start happening—disappearances, body parts appearing, unsettling men, some mysterious boys—and suddenly we’re not in high school anymore. (Except, Mia is, of course, and manages to never lose all her angst no matter what terrible things are happening around her.)

After a slightly slow beginning, the plot starts charging forward and never stops until the end of the novel. There were a couple of very big surprises for me—shocks that I just never believed would occur—and one very obvious plot line that never happened. Both the shock and the author’s restraint greatly enhanced the novel.

If you’re looking for a new take on the werewolf story, you should give Night of the Hidden Fang a try.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Dawn of the Deadly Fang by T. James Logan

You expect an author to kick the stakes up a notch in the first sequel to a novel, but in Dawn of the Deadly Fang, T. James Logan jumped over the first notch and took the plot all the way up to “eleven”. While in the first book, the focus on the werewolf threat made it look like a mostly local problem, the sequel makes it clear that the monsters pose a national—if not global—threat. The danger is greatly enhanced by the fact that these supernatural creatures are not just monsters mindlessly howling and killing people on the night of the full moon, they are experienced military and law enforcement personnel who have lost their moral compass as a result of contracting lycanthropy. They have come to believe that humans need to be knocked off the top of the food chain and into the cattle pens to serve as sheep for the new alpha predators.

In the middle of this (still secretly) evolving menace is Mia—the teenager whose DNA appears to hold the key to the lycanthropy pandemic. Her mother is completely immune to the disease, but Mia is infected but not expressing the disease like other lycanthropes. So, she’s being poked, prodded, and tested in a relationship that has become so antagonistic with her doctors that she starts hiding key developments from them—her ability to finally shape change and her unique ability to halt the transformation halfway.

The novel focuses on a global movement by werewolves to paralyze national governments through strikes on critical personnel and infrastructure. Since the knowledge of the existence of werewolves is not yet widespread in those governments, the creatures have been able to infiltrate everywhere simply by infecting people. The final move is to try and capture/kill Mia to prevent the government from using her to develop a vaccine or cure. How do you get your hands on a highly protected teenaged girl? Kidnap a busload of her friends and get her to come to you. But Mia isn’t as stupid as the bad guys think she is, and she’s got a lot of help. Too bad she doesn’t know that her friends are a sideshow toward the real plan—destruction of all human authority in the United States.

If you enjoyed the first book in this series, you’re certain to enjoy Dawn of the Deadly Fang.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Unofficial Legend of the Secret World

The Black House by Blodwedd Mallory

Haunted houses are so much more interesting when magic and ghosts are real. In The Black House, Mallory and a fellow student at the Innsmouth Academy are dared to explore a haunted house and Mallory finds a lot more than she expected.

This short story is a treat for two different reasons. First, there is a good mystery surrounding why the house is haunted and it, alone, was enough to keep me turning pages to find out what was going to happen. But it’s also an excellent prequel story to Mallory’s already published adventures. Prequels are hard to pull off—the characters have to be true to the people they will become over the course of the series, but they are less capable and less experienced. In this case Mallory handles both aspects extremely well. If you’re interested in trying this series, The Black House is a great place to start.

I received this story for free in exchange for an honest review.

To Sir, with Love by Blodwedd Mallory

This novel is a lot of fun. It’s an urban fantasy setting told from the perspective of a young woman who was about to graduate from her magical high school when the apocalypse happened. That makes it sound like the secret of magic is now out in the world, but frankly, I’m not certain that’s the case. There is a lot of talk of secret societies such as the Templars and the Illuminati and I doubt that they would need to be secret if everyone knew about the supernatural.

That confusion aside, this is a fast-moving book about a young woman and her best friend who have to stop a wraith from killing the headmaster of their school. Complicating that significant problem are several hundred familiars that have been raised from their graves in the basement by the onset of the apocalypse and want nothing more than to kill everyone remaining in the school. It’s a tough situation for two teenagers to be in and Mallory handles it with a lot of skill.

As the efforts to stop the wraith become increasingly sophisticated, we learn a lot about how magic works in this world. I found the chaos-aspected magic the most interesting, especially the ability to step out of time and look at different outcomes that can flow from the caster’s magic—none of which seem to work out exactly as hoped.

I enjoyed this book enough that halfway through I bought the sequel novel, London Underground. In the afterward at the end of the book, I learned the story was based on a game system. That makes sense after the fact, but the book stood on its own and you don’t have to know anything about the game to enjoy it.

London Underground by Blodwedd Mallory

Mallory comes out swinging in this second volume of her Legend of the Secret World series. Our heroine, Bloodwedd, has graduated high school and is finally going to get her chance to join the Templars. Unfortunately, every senior Templar she meets seems to have a serious stick stuck up their rectum and they do not appreciate her willingness to jump in and tackle any problem she sees. They also don’t appear to properly appreciate her intuitive grasp of the many sticky situations she finds herself in which leads her to solutions that have evaded her more experienced superiors. In short, most of the Templars come off as being married to their bureaucracy in a way designed to stifle innovation and irritate the reader. The cold shoulder Blodwedd receives from so many in authority probably explains why she doesn’t tell them about the most interesting thing happening to her—a series of much too life-like dreams.

These dreams are by far the best part of a very enjoyable novel. In the dreams, Blodwedd finds herself in Japan in the body of another woman fighting a supernatural threat known as the Filth. In her waking life, it quickly becomes clear that Japan is involved in some sort of mega crisis. The only disappointing thing about this novel was that we don’t have resolution on this storyline yet. Bad things are happening and it feels like it could easily spiral into a zombie-apocalypse level disaster (not that the Filth is composed of zombies).

I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in this series. Despite my comments above, some of the rank and file Templars are turning into great supporting cast characters and I’m eager to see what Mallory plans to do with all of them.

Dead in the Water by Blodwedd Mallory

In the third novel of the series, Mallory returns to Solomon Island to try and resolve the zombie situation which has lingered from the first book. She’s a full Templar now and acts with a bit more confidence than she did in the previous two stories as she and a growing cast of secret-society types investigate the cause of the zombie infestation and discover connections to a much larger problem.

Like the other books in the series, this one is fast moving and fun, but there were a couple of minor points that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. For example, the Templars sent Mallory into action without any type of briefing on the monster they already knew to be there—the zombies. While it’s been made quite clear that the resources of the Templars are overstretched, is it really plausible that Mallory’s superiors would not provide her with such basic information as zombies are attracted to loud noises? I think the problem comes from the game roots of the series. Some of the dialogue comes across as an NPC giving a mission to a player. The lack of training has the same feel to it.

These small problems aside, this is a worthy sequel to the first two novels and it builds to an intensely exciting, action-packed conclusion. I look forward to reading the next one.

Hard Cleft by Blodwedd Mallory

It’s been roughly a year since I last read a story in this Unofficial Legend of the Secret World series but it was easy to slip back into the action. Craziness continues to revolve around Solomon Island and whatever dark magic keeps the perpetual fog and the zombies there. Mallory and her partner eventually work out the next steps in the mystery, hunting down a mysterious wizard who, with the help of a magic item, appears to be behind this mess.

The novel was slow to get started and it wasn’t until roughly the halfway point that Mallory found her stride and the book recaptured the fast pace of earlier stories. Part of the problem may be that the character Blodwedd seemed to have lost some of her hard-earned maturity from earlier books in the series. She has a lot of personal problems and makes some frankly ridiculous choices, the biggest of which was the outing of an undercover Templar to a woman because she wants her to be her friend. Think about that for a moment. She didn’t even appear to understand that her actions may well endanger the undercover agent’s life. I also found it rather unbelievable that everyone at her old academy appeared to know the location of a super-secret Illuminati library, but perhaps that resulted from the author’s desire to keep the pace moving.

That being said, once the action starts the novel quickly produces the high-octane atmosphere that we saw in the earlier books. The problems are serious and the solutions overall were exciting and credible. Serious progress is made in advancing the overarching plot of the series offering a couple of truly interesting possibilities for the next book. If you liked the earlier installments in this series you will definitely like this one as well. Once it finds it stride it gives you all the action that we’ve come to expect from Blodwedd Mallory.

A Grim, Odd, Arcane Sky by Blodwedd Mallory

Blodwedd Malory and her friends are finally getting some much-needed answers to the mysteries surrounding the supernatural filth and the problems of Solomon Island. These heroes have come a long way since the first book when they were still in school and it shows as they make better, more experienced, decisions as they risk their lives to learn about these supernatural threats and the role that a certain suspicious corporation and the U.S. military may have played in causing the disaster.

If that was all that was happening, this would have been a good story, but we also get a look into the covert investigation being carried out by Wedd’s mother, and we learn about a much earlier battle in this enduring conflict that took place between Mayans and Vikings a thousand years earlier. All of this happens within the context of magical factions which are still unwilling to truly come together to battle the threat—making the reader wonder what their leaders truly know and what their actual ambitions are.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, you definitely want to pick up A Grim, Odd, Arcane Sky.

In Alpha Order by Author

Monster Aces by Jim Beard, et. al.

This is a fine collection of short stories that pays tribute to the pulp magazines. Set in the 1920s, it records the adventures of five people who seek out monsters threatening humanity and destroy them. Each short story is written by a different author, but they all managed to keep the feeling of the group intact. It reminded me a lot of Doc Savage and his crew. There is no scientific genius among the Monster Aces, but they each have their specialty and the camaraderie between the men and one woman worked well.

An advantage to the short story format is that you don’t have to commit to long reading times. This is especially helpful when you are listening to the book in audio format while running errands in your car as I did. They’re good stories. I will definitely read the sequel collection.

Monster Aces II by Jim Beard, et. al.

Jim Beard and his co-authors return for a second round of quick short stories about the monster aces—four men and a woman who seek out monsters around the globe to destroy them. Each story is written by a different author and most are very good. We see Gilgamesh and Ponce de Leon, a vampire, and werewolves in addition to some other creepy creatures. All in all, it felt like I was picking up an old-style pulp magazine and reading a collection that would fit in nicely with the greats.

Shift Work by Brock Bloodworth and H. Claire Taylor

In the increasingly densely packed paranormal field of fiction, here’s a book that stood out to me from the very first chapters. Norman Green is a rarity on the Killraven police force, a totally normal human. He’s also in the two-month probationary period on the police force, getting trained on the job on how to investigate, handle, and survive policing a very wide variety of shapeshifters and were-creatures. In fact, that is the single thing that makes this book so different—the sheer number and types of shifter beings. Over the course of this novel we see everything from wolves, to alligators, to birds, to snakes, to coyotes, to…well you get the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if a were-hamster showed up in a future novel.

In addition to that, we have telepaths, telekinetics, elves, ghosts, and vampires. It’s a very rich setting and makes these two months on the job—in which we work our way up to the point of the first chapter in which our protagonist, Rookie Norman Green (and isn’t that a great surname for a rookie?) has to shoot a human to defend his fellow officers. This is a world where the cops on the beat are certain they can’t depend on the brass and the politicians. It’s a world in which huge prejudices exist. And it’s a world where one rookie seems like a very small price to pay to keep the department from being involved in scandal.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading more of them in the future.

Indomitable by Claudia Brooke

There is some excellent worldbuilding in this novel. Vampires exist in a sort of two-tiered fashion—full vampires and half vampires who have not been fully brought over. There are also angels and at least a few other types of supernatural beings such as reapers, who harvest the souls of the dead. Most interesting, there are a few human beings with special souls that come in multiple flavors including the “indomitable” spirit of the title. That “flavor” gives them certain special abilities—not superhero level abilities—but special none the less.

The novel starts with its most interesting character, Gracie, whose controlling family is trying to compel to go to graduate school. Gracie has other plans. Her great dream in life is to own a cake truck and make her living baking and selling fabulous cakes to whoever has the taste for one. Her family can’t understand this and isn’t interested in doing so. Even her fiancé is unsupportive of her great ambition even though he appears to be a pretty good guy by other measures.

The first few chapters focus on Gracie attempting to raise money to buy the used cake truck of her dreams. In doing so, she agrees to become the dog walker for a very rich woman who is convinced her dog is a vampire who feeds on squirrels. It’s a delightful storyline that I wish had gone on longer. Gracie is a superb character, instantly interesting and sympathetic, and I enjoyed all the chapters from her POV.

Unfortunately, she isn’t really the main character of the novel. That honor goes to Felix and he is not up to the responsibility of carrying the book. Felix is (purposely I gather) dislikeable. His only redeeming quality appears to be an out of character interest in something beside himself (i.e. keeping someone from being killed later in the novel). Seeing as he is so completely self-centered, I never understood why he would put himself out to help someone else. I kept waiting for him to become more likeable. I mean, even big bad evil supervillain types can be a joy to read, but Felix is not and it’s a big problem for this story. Had the author not made him a major POV it wouldn’t have mattered, but it’s always a problem when you are expected to read many chapters from the POV of a character that you just don’t like.

Fortunately, the other POVs are better, including a very interesting reaper, but I think the whole book would have been much stronger if the author had stuck with Gracie throughout. This would have raised a few storytelling challenges, but let’s face it, all of the most interesting things in this plot happen to her and she’s delightful. In addition to discovering the world is not as mundane as she had believed, she has to deal with some tremendously traumatic events including an emotional betrayal that was quite simply expertly constructed by the author.

And so much does happen to Gracie and those around her. The angels appear to be fighting with each other. Death is plotting to do something very selfish with potentially diabolical consequences. Vampires are seeking to elevate their place in the hierarchy of the planet. And I could go on, but you should really read the book and uncover these golden nuggets for yourself. Because you see, despite my frustrations with Felix, I want to learn what happens to Gracie. So, not only will I be reading the sequel, I suggest you read the series yourself.

Working for Bigfoot by Jim Butcher

Bullies, evil teachers, and a girlfriend’s family from hell…those are the sorts of problems that Harry Dresden, Wizard, finds himself in the middle of when he agrees on three separate occasions to take on the job of looking after a sasquatch’s half breed son. The boy doesn’t know his father is a bigfoot. He doesn’t know anything about magic or supernatural creatures. But his problems all involve that hidden world to some extent or another—which explains why he needs Harry Dresden.

The book is broken up into three novellas, each with their own little mystery, and each with a solution so unique that there is no feeling of “following a formula” to the set of stories. As they happen over the course of the young man’s childhood, they also show the son of bigfoot growing and maturing, figuring out how to be himself in a world that doesn’t quite know how to respond to him. He’s very tall, rather homely, and filled with strength and energy which makes no sense to those who don’t know the truth about him. (That includes himself.)

Jim Butcher has always been a great author and this book showcases his talent quite well. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Dresden files novels, you are certain to enjoy this book. If you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about Harry Dresden is about, this is a great place to start.

Chasing Shadows by Jamel Cato

Chasing Shadows may well be the most vibrant paranormal mysteries I’ve ever read. There are no vampires or werewolves in this well drawn urban fantasy, but there are plenty of ghosts, spirits and extra dimensional beings. This novel caught me from chapter one and just didn’t let go again until I’d reached the end.

In addition to a rich backdrop of ghosts, etc., there is a fascinating mystery (or three) that powers this novel as our hero tries to track down why a home is being haunted by an extremely large number of other worldly beings. The answer to that quickly becomes even more complicated involving an environmental tech company trying to save the world from carbon fuels, a failing marriage, and a possible otherworldly invasion.

As you can see from the above paragraph, this book is hard to pin down. Every time I thought I knew what was going on the author threw me for another fascinating loop. If you’re looking for a new type of urban fantasy and love ghosts, you should take a look at Chasing Shadows.

I received this story for free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

Orson by David Delaney

This is a fun new urban fantasy series about shapeshifters and mages. Orson learns he has latent shapeshifter genes when his girlfriend kisses him for the first time and accidentally awakens the talent within him. But Orson isn’t just any old shapeshifter, he’s a mythical, incredibly powerful, shifter who scares the pants off most everyone who finds out about him. So as shapeshifter society splits and some begin working with the hated blood mages to remove the “threat” of Orson (and that threat always seemed more political to me than personal), Orson has to learn to master his abilities so he can survive.

I didn’t feel like there was anything new in this book, but it is a fun take on a tried-and-true storyline. It’s also a very fast read. So if you’re looking for a new urban fantasy with a lot of action, this is a good novel to sink your teeth into.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick

I picked up this book on a whim because Halloween is getting close and it’s a ghost story. I have vague recollections of seeing a couple of reruns of the TV series a very long time ago, but really didn’t know what to expect other than that I didn’t think I was getting a classic ghost story. What I found was an unexpected treasure. This is a very sweet and touching book about a woman struggling to find who she is and to have the freedom to live her life and raise her children the way she wants to. She’s not a hundred percent certain what that means at the beginning of the book, but with the help of a curmudgeonly spirit of an old sea captain, she finds the strength to discover herself. Not that the ghost realizes he is helping her do that in the beginning—she helps him grow quite a bit too. What we see happen instead over many decades is the development of a wonderful friendship with a truly touching ending.

Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic by Meghan Ciana Doidge

Doidge has a lot of fun with the reader in this first book of her Dowser series, playing with the urban fantasy tradition of mixing romance with the genre to set the reader up for some very big surprises. In doing so she creates a vibrant setting mixing witches, werewolves, vampires and other supernatural creatures. Her heroine, Jade, is an extremely weak witch who is more interested in making cupcakes than magic. She’s bullied mercilessly by her sister—but doesn’t seem to recognize what is happening. And she’s unintentionally become a person of interest in a secret investigation into the death of several werewolves.

The story is frankly a lot of fun, but it took me a while to truly accept Jade’s character. I suspect that, like me, the average reader will figure out who the bad guys are and what they’re up to within the first few chapters, but Jade is really slow to put the pieces together. However, I decided by the end of the book that that was the result of really good characterization on the part of the author. I don’t want to give away the ending, so I’ll try to be indirect and subtle. The problem is that we often blind ourselves to the truth of those around us and while frustrating, it is actually very realistic to let our preconceptions force us to overlook what’s really happening.

Doidge has a nice setup here for future stories which will hopefully explore the mysterious half of Jade’s heritage and help the reader understand how it interweaves with the trinkets she is constantly crafting. It’s a mystery I would very much like to see resolved.

Miss Knight and the Ghosts of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani

This book has one of the best opening lines I have ever read: “It’s an uncommonly known fact that a strong pot of tea will obscure a werewolf’s stench.” What follows is just as good as those first words. Miss Knight (or Mrs. Knight as she insists as she considers herself to be still married to her husband who has become a ghost) is a rather atypical adventuress. In many ways she struggles to maintain a façade as a proper Victorian lady, but in practice she is an agent of a society that investigates and regulates the paranormal—something she is well suited to do because of her peculiar gift to recognize the paranormal and speak with ghosts.

The plot of this book involves her and her adopted family having to travel to Africa after the father of the family’s poor investment strategy leaves them bankrupt. So much of this book reads like a colonial novel—the reactions of Miss Knight and her family to living in a part of the world very different than London society. The other part is an investigation into two ghost lions that are still killing people. It’s frankly a delightful story, sedately paced but never feeling overly slow. There are some nice surprises along the way and a great setup for the next book.

District Witch 1976 by Mel Enderby

I enjoy a good urban fantasy and am especially attracted to excellent world building. This novel caught me early on when it was revealed that Winston Churchill, as a matter of national security for the British Empire, made a secret treaty with the witches of England to protect their human neighbors from supernatural dangers. Thus was born the office of district witch—individuals called in by those few members of law enforcement who are in the know—to protect England by quietly neutralizing supernatural problems.

District Witch 1976 follows two young district witch apprentices who are in competition to become a district witch one day. Both of them have problems. One lost her sister to fell magic and remains very bitter about it, making her somewhat difficult to like even if she is in many ways a sympathetic character. The other was hidden among the humans for reasons that begin to become apparent as the novel progresses. He finds out during the course of the novel that he is a witch and begins to develop his powers very rapidly.

Many (if not most) magic powers appear to come from arrangements with beings from the other side and the boy, Tom’s, magical companion is so powerful it worries everyone—except Tom who really doesn’t know enough to know if he should be worried. The leaders of the witches want Tom watched as they attempt to determine if he will prove to be a danger to them and England.

The novel offers a couple of interesting cases that the two apprentices and their district witch investigate together and lays the groundwork for a sequel. There are moments that are quite exciting, but there were also moments that I wished the pacing of the story would pick up considerably. Overall, I enjoyed the book and am glad I read it. If you like magical systems and the idea of supernatural beings secretly moving about in our world, you’re likely to enjoy this novel.

I received this book free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

Bill the Vampire by Rick Gualtieri

Bill Rider is a geek who thinks he’s finally got a shot at scoring with a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, she’s a vampire and he’s the lonesome loser—big time. Now Bill is undead too and trying to figure out how to survive. Much to his disappointment, becoming undead didn’t make him graceful, or handsome or ready for a role on True Blood. It also didn’t dispose of his pesky conscience. All of which make him the very opposite of apex predator and pretty funny to follow.

Even Tree Nymphs Get the Blues by Molly Harper

Many paranormal romances gravitate around an external plot like a mystery or some crisis. That is not the case in this short book. It is solely focused on a romance between a psychologically scarred tree nymph and the human man who decides to coax her out of her tree. It’s a quick and enjoyable story, but there isn’t much to it—including a reason for the romance. The nymph is simply not interested and I never understood why the man pursues her. Don’t get me wrong, the character was fascinating—especially when we finally learn why she is so skittish around people—but her personality wasn’t attractive and there was never any reason given to explain the man’s interest in her other than purely physical attraction.

What was more interesting was the background of mythical creatures living on the outskirts of human society with a sort of self-appointed and not particularly liked governing structure. I suspect that this government—for good and ill—plays a much bigger role in other books set in Mystic Bayou.

Cat Tales by Faith Hunter

Cat Tales by Faith Hunter is a collection of short stories from the Jane Yellowrock universe. The Yellowrock novels compose one of the best urban fantasy vampire series on the market today. As anyone who reads this genre knows, most of these series focus on the supernatural rivalries between various groups of preternatural beings (vampires, weres, etc.) and are often seen from the POV of a protagonist drawn into their world from the outside. That’s true in the Yellowrock novels as well. But what puts this series above the pack is the dual-souled nature of our heroine, Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker who has the spirit of a mountain lion (called Beast) sharing her body. Jane is a solid character with well-thought out powers, but it is Beast and her simple predator instincts and wisdom which makes Jane super cool. This series should be read by everyone who enjoys an action filled book about the supernatural.

The first story, “The Early Years,” isn’t really a short story. It’s the unfinished lead in to what probably should have been a novella. It’s still a must read for any fan of the series as it offers a glimpse at Jane’s time in the orphanage and shows her rediscovery of her powers. But be forewarned, it will definitely leave you wondering what happened to the rest of the tale.

“Cat Tats” is a complete story, fleshing out the background of Rick LaFleur, one of the awesome support cast in Jane’s world. Rick has some elaborate cat-themed tattoos on his body and this story shows how and why he got them. Without spoiling the story, I think I can safely say that no one would want to get their tattoos this way.

“Kits” explores how Jane became best friends with earth witch Molly Everhart. It’s the best story in the batch and certainly isn’t hurt by providing a vital role for my favorite character, Beast. There are a lot of threads seamlessly woven together in this story and if you’ve never read any of the Jane Yellowrock books, this little story will draw you in and whet your appetite for more.

“Blood, Fangs and Going Fury,” is a treat for fans of the series who would like a gap between two of the novels filled in for them. In Mercy Blade things go badly wrong for Rick LaFleur with the promise of more pain and torment for him after the novel ends. This story shows just how terrible his life has become. Even better, it is simply beautifully written. Faith Hunter’s poetic descriptions bring the reality of Rick’s newly heightened senses to life. They are a true pleasure to read.

Ms. Hunter is at her best writing full length novels but this collection of stories is well worth the money. 

Have Stakes Will Travel by Faith Hunter

In Have Stakes Will Travel, Faith Hunter fills in more of the background of Jane Yellowrock and her strange group of friends. I’ve already praised the series at some length in my review of Cat Tales so instead of repeating myself here, I’m going to jump right into my reactions to the four short stories in this collection.

WeSa and the Lumber King: As I noted in an earlier review, I am a big fan of the character Beast. This spirit of a mountain lion trapped with Jane in her body is a lot of what gives this series it’s unique tone, bringing me eagerly back to each successive novel. So I was thrilled to find that this entire story is told from Beast’s perspective. For an indeterminate number of years (running in the decades) before Jane wandered out of the woods back into human society as a feral child, Beast was in control of their body prowling the Appalachian Mountains in big cat form. Their range is slowly being destroyed by the encroaching white man. Game is fleeing, trees are being cut down, rivers clogged and fouled. Beast decides to strike back at the white man in peculiarly Beast fashion. The story didn’t quite work for me, but I enjoyed Hunter’s attempt.

Haints: Haints is a short story that captures the excitement and mystery of the Jane Yellowrock novels. It’s a simply wonderful tale told from the POV of Molly Everhart Trueblood, an earth witch who is also Jane’s best friend. The reader gets to try and solve the mystery alongside Jane and Molly and watch as our heroines deal with an intriguing problem and finally it’s tragic resolution. The story also introduces a great new supporting character, a local police detective named Brax.

Signatures of the Dead: This story is in my view the most important of the short stories in the two collections (Cat Tales and Have Stakes Will Travel). This is the event alluded to from the beginning of the series in which Jane makes her reputation as a Vampire Hunter. It’s a gritty frightening tale of insane rogue vampires praying on a community and it strikes close to home when Molly’s pregnant sister is captured by the creatures. Like Haints, this story reads with all the depth and color of Hunter’s novels. It’s exceedingly well done.

Cajun with Fangs: This story also reads like one of Ms. Hunter’s novels. Jane’s motorcycle breaks down in a small bayou town and Jane gets pulled into a centuries old feud between witches and vampires. It’s intense with satisfying twists and turns. Jane is required to be both tough and very intelligent. The only problem with the story is that one of the locals speaks in dialect and it gets very trying. The “dialect” issue is often an unwinnable problem for authors. People do speak differently. If you pretend that they don’t your stories lack an important element of authenticity. If you show the dialect, it can distract from the tale. On reflection, Ms. Hunter walks the line between these problems very well.

Have Stakes Will Travel is a much stronger collection of stories than is found in Cat Tales. Both are worth your money.

The House of Teeth by Dan Jolley

If you’re looking for a powerful new urban fantasy, you’ll want to sink your teeth into this new book by Dan Jolley. There is magic in the Louisiana Bayou and Henry Lemarchand is about to find out that his family is right in the middle of it—waging a centuries-old struggle between good and evil. This book has it all—a great back story, a cool magic system (actually two cool magic systems), and a great plot as Henry and his cousin seek to find out how his father really died. In doing so, they may just have to save the world from an ancient evil.

I had a lot fun with this novel. It’s targeted at young adults and centered around two teenagers. They make a lot of mistakes—technically dumb mistakes but we’re talking about teenagers and so acting on emotion without a lot of thinking through the situation felt very right. My only real problem with the story was the supervillain moment in which the big bad guy revealed his nefarious plan. As one would expect at this moment, the villain thought he was impossible to stop, but, fortunately for the good guys, he wasn’t.

Treehawke by Deven Kane

The premise of this story is quite interesting. The hero is a member of a clan of individuals who can interact with the dead. He wants nothing to do with this heritage and has tried to walk away from it. Unfortunately for him, the dead are pulling him back as a monster composed of spirits who can’t rest is seeking vengeance on the world.

All of that is good. On the downside, the novel is very slow moving which and that caused some difficulties in holding my interest. Treehawke’s early determination not to have anything to do with his heritage also became a bit frustrating. I kept thinking, if he really doesn’t want anything to do with his heritage, why didn’t he move far away? But those frustrations aside, it’s worth holding on the conclusion of the story.

Smilodon by Robert M. Kerns

Kerns offers a nice twist on the werecreature with his idea that every once in a while a shifter comes into existence not as a modern creature but as an ancient ancestral creature such as a dire wolf or a sabretooth tiger. Let’s face it, that’s fun. Add to it a fairly well-developed world of secret magi and shifters and others working with the government (secretly) through treaties to keep normal humans living in blissful ignorance and you have a decent set up for an urban fantasy series. Further add a good plot with decent action and you have the makings of a winner.

The biggest problem with the series seems to be increasingly popular today. Traditionally, the lycanthrope is a creature of tremendous passion and a major part of the struggle is for the newly cursed to try and control his or her animal form. This novel was set up beautifully to focus on this problem and then ignored it completely. Shifting in and out of animal form is as easy and inconsequential as taking on or off one’s clothes. The shifter society is actually quite brutal, but it’s not clear why as the animal aspects of the shifter do little more than talk to the human aspect of the same being. As a result, this book often felt more like a superhero novel than a book about shape changers and I really don’t understand why the author chose to go this route. He had a great story to tell—a really decent guy descended from magi gets turned into one of the most powerful shifters in existence and must learn to control his new form and bridge two worlds. Without the struggle for control, nothing in this novel actually felt like a challenge or even a difficulty for our hero.

Also, the author tells the story from many points of views (third person) except Wyatt’s which he told in the first person. I’m not sure why he chose to tell Wyatt’s in the first person. I didn’t feel these scenes were either as well written or as powerful as the others, and the stepping into first person always felt jarring after the other scenes.

Blood Prism by E.E. King

This is a beautifully written book with an unusual, heavily descriptive, almost poetic style. There’s not a lot of dialogue and that troubled me a little at first, but the short chapters quickly pulled me in to the parallel lives of Neal and Aidan from their extreme youth to the end of the novel. Neal brings hope and happiness into people’s lives while Aidan brings only misery, fear and despair—although not usually through any overt acts of his own. It amazes me that King somehow succeeded in making a character whom no one likes and whom everyone is uncomfortable around charming in his own sad way.

This book is inundated in what I would call the “casual supernatural”. It’s all about atmosphere instead of plot. The Fates of Greek mythology overtly manipulate every aspect of the book. In addition, supernatural creatures—vampires, werewolves, minor gods, ghosts—flitter through most of the pages, as does small, potent, but generally unconscious magic. I’d say these supernatural elements drive the plot, but I’m not sure this book has a plot. It certainly doesn’t need one. It’s like a gorgeous intricate painting of a series of lives—endlessly fascinating, telling small stories, but only creating a larger picture in retrospect once the reader has finished. Blood Prism is definitely worth your time.

Combat Wizard by Jack L. Knapp

The wizards of this Jack L. Knapp series all possess psychic abilities of some sort. The hero is a disappointment to a secret government school to train these individuals and is farmed out to the army as a way of getting rid of an embarrassment. He’s serving in Afghanistan where his skills continue to develop. Then he learns that almost all the other alumni of the school have been murdered courtesy of an explosive chip implanted in their necks. Not wishing to be killed, “T” goes underground with another psychic and begins to try and figure out how to save his life.

Knapp builds tension well in this book. There is always a threat to be handled and, as everyone reading would expect, the authorities from the school are not willing to let “T” just disappear. I felt that a little too much time was spent practicing with powers, but then again, the heroes did need to practice and develop so I’m not certain that is a fair complaint. By the end of the book, however, the main cast seems pretty competent so I think that the next novel promises to put more energy into plot and less into “skill building”.

Wizard at Work by Jack L. Knapp

Now that the immediate threat of T’s old teachers trying to kill him is done, Knapp spends a novel figuring out how a couple of people with psychic powers can earning a living without the world finding out about their abilities. Over all, it’s a good novel. My favorite “job” was treasure hunting and I’d like to know if the legends that lead them to treasures are actual legends. The challenges of turning finds of gold coins into cash people can spend without drawing the attention of the government fascinated me. (This was necessary in a large part because of T’s obsession with not paying taxes as a sort of payback for the way the government has treated him.) Add in the troubles with earthquakes and this was a good addition to the series. I’ll be interested to see what Knapp does next.

Adventures of a Vegan Vamp by Cate Lawley

I’ve read a fairly large number of vampire novels over the years and it’s always nice to get a new take on the genre—but a vegan vampire? Really? How is a vampire who pukes at the sight, smell, and taste of blood supposed to make it in her undead afterlife?

Mallory has no recollection of how she became a vampire nor any real understanding of what it means other than that she is losing frightening amounts of weight and surviving on coffee and fruit drinks. She tries to get medical help and gets told she’s a vampire, but nobody really believes in those, right? Then, as reality sets in, she finds out that the vamp who created her expected her to die from the process and has in fact killed several other women the same way. So Mallory decides to embrace the afterlife by getting some good old fashioned revenge.

This is a fun book for people who are interested in the undead but want to skip over all that spooky horror novel stuff. Lawley’s vampires aren’t particularly mystical or even very vampire-like, but she’s put together a light-hearted world of the living dead with wizards, assassins, and magic swords. This probably won’t appeal to the hardcourt vampire fan, but I really appreciated a totally unique take on the genre.

Death Retires by Cate Lawley

Lawley has produced another unusual paranormal adventure in Death Retires. Geoff is a retired soul collector—a rather old man in a new young body—who has attempted to retire to a quiet town with his 25-pound possessed bobcat, Clarence. Unfortunately for Geoff there are a number of ghosts in the vicinity that both Clarence and he can talk to and one of them wants his help in protecting his ex-wife from the men who killed him. Unfortunately, his memory of how he died is badly damaged and he doesn’t remember who his murderers were. Geoff isn’t very excited to get involved in this, but finally agrees in the hope that resolving the problem will give him the peaceful retirement he craves. (I suspect that since this is the first book in the series, he will never find that peaceful existence.)

The cast of characters (a medium, a witch, the ghost’s ex-wife, and a demon—not to mention Geoff and Clarence) made for an interesting group to tackle the problem. More importantly, the mystery took a left turn away from my expectations, making the eventual resolution a credible surprise. If you like mysteries with a paranormal flair, this is a series you should find interesting.

The HighFire Crown by J.T. Lawrence and M.J. Kraus

There’s a lot to like about this new series by Lawrence and Kraus. Jacqueline Knight is a hard driving wizard detective whose magic is driven by her emotions. This simple statement really helps the credibility of the story, because in most adventures, even though our heroes are exhausted, they somehow manage to find the strength to keep going. Strong emotions like anger, hate and fear often grow worse as the hero is run down and this made Knight suddenly finding the strength to keep fighting really believable.

There is also a nice mixture of modern world and hidden magical world. The idea is not original, but the world building worked for me here and kept up my interest in learning about Knight’s realm.

The mystery was also a good one. Lots of things happening. Many of them end up being related—no surprise there—but how they become related kept my interest building throughout the story.

I do have a couple of very minor complaints. One is that we keep getting told that Knight is the best wizard detective around. She clearly has a superb reputation. And yet she’s two months behind on her rent and I found those two things didn’t quite go together. Maybe if only poor people thought she was good, but everyone knows who she is and wants her to work on cases for them. In addition, and this is a bit unfair of me, there is a big unresolved problem at the end which is clearly intended to drive the next book in the series. When I read a book that acts like a detective story, I expect the mystery resolved even if the bigger problems continue into the next novel. Obviously the authors disagreed with me here. Which is their right. It’s their story and despite these small complaints it’s a good one.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World by Curtis M. Lawson

This is a tale of two magical daggers that act as vampires, transferring the life, vitality, and soul of the person stabbed to the person doing the stabbing. Old people become younger and stronger. Injured people heal instantaneously. Sick people become healthy. All at the small price of being turned into a crazed homicidal maniac.

Naturally, most people don’t believe the legend behind the daggers is true. They just see extremely valuable artifacts of an earlier age. When the knives are sort of accidentally stolen, lots of people become interested in possessing them. Most initially want to claim the reward, but just about everyone gets seduced by the very real power of the blades. This makes for a madcap adventure in which large numbers of people are seeking the prize in a very dark parody of the famous comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The truth is, I expected to like this book, but was surprised by just how quickly I fell in love with it. Lawson’s characters are fantastic—quirky (if not outright weird)—and many of them are really, really, bad. All of them are in over their heads. Watching people struggle to obtain or regain possession of these magic items was fascinating. Wondering who would ultimately survive made for a gripping and extremely fast-paced storyline. Honestly, my only problem with the tale was that it came to an end.

Fortunately, there’s a sequel.

To Kill an Archangel by Curtis M. Lawson

The sequel to It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World picks up with the handful of survivors from the first novel (yes, there actually were a couple) and shows how their lives have come apart after their encounters with the daggers. The two orphans have gone through a myriad of foster homes—one obsessed with getting the knives back and the other trying to forget that she was intended as a sacrifice for the blades. The third, the Rhodesian Mercenary, seems less effected. He’s healthier thanks to the daggers, but wants to get the lingering visions out of his head. He agrees to try and recover the knives from the serial killer who currently owns them on the condition that they be destroyed. That condition will end up with him invading the Vatican for the tools he needs to finish the job.

Catholics will not be happy with how the pope is portrayed in this novel, but don’t let that deter you from reading the book. Like the first, the action is nonstop, the characters are wonderfully crafted, and the tension just continues to rise from beginning to end. The daggers can corrupt anyone and so no one is truly trustworthy as they try to destroy the artifacts that reportedly have a corrupted archangel trapped within them.

The ending is outstanding. I can’t wait to learn what happens next.

High Strangeness by Will MacLean

I love a good radio drama, and lately, thanks to audiobooks, the format has been revived in fully dramatized stories. That’s what you get with High Strangeness, a quirky, often funny, tale of paranormal craziness that is so out of hand it will quite likely destroy life as we know it. A fanatical paranormal investigator stumbles into an actual otherworldly event and runs afoul of a secret government agency that both investigates these happenings and tries to shut up anyone else who finds out about them. A lot of the action is delightfully over the top. You’ve got clones, cow mutilations, a bizarre religious cult, rival paranormal investigators, coverups, the aforementioned end of the world, and an awful lot of fun. The book is set up for a sequel and I’m certainly hoping we get one.

Immortal Creatures by J.N. Moon

I decided to read this book because I find the wendigo—the mythical Canadian monster created when a person eats human flesh—to be a fascinating and rarely used supernatural creature and I wanted to see what Moon would do with it. I also thought the idea of an EMT brought into the knowledge that supernatural creatures exist had great potential as a vehicle for propelling a story forward. So when the novel opens with the heroin Eloise killing a banshee, I thought things were off to a very good start.

Eloise was bitten while making a call. (I was never clear about what bit her.) Somehow this bite activates within her the ability to see the supernatural and kindles within her a fierce need to destroy the predators among the supernatural community—sort of. She quickly makes an exception for her one supernatural friend (a vampire) and convinces her to help her friend destroy the wendigo because it is preying primarily on vampires. Frankly, this never made a lot of sense to me, as vampires prey on humans and stopping that seems to be a major motivating force for Eloise, but to be fair to her, events quickly get complicated as they try to stop the wendigo and the force behind it.

As the springboard for a series, Immortal Creatures has a lot to offer—vampires, witches, demons, and tons of supernatural creatures. It will be interesting to see where J.N. Moon goes with it.

I received this book free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian

This book has been on my “to read” list for several months. It’s based on an interesting idea. Alchemy is real and the philosopher’s stone has been created granting some alchemists an end to natural aging. Alchemy can also be used to bring some inanimate objects to life, such as the gargoyle who is the most interesting character in the story.

Other than an interesting background, it took quite a while for me to get drawn into the story itself. An alchemist who has left the trade discovers a gargoyle and a murdered person. Some items are stolen from her and the gargoyle including a book with a recipe that the gargoyle needs to sustain his existence. The rest of the book is a search for the murderer and, more importantly, the book. It is interspersed with the alchemist getting to know her new town (which also helps with the investigation) and endless descriptions of cooking.

I did finally get pulled into the mystery late in the story. It’s one of those tales that depends on the villain explaining an awful lot to everyone after being captured.

Just Try Not to Die by Gareth K. Pengelly

Many monster hunter style series are built around a sort of chosen one—a hero in the making who will protect the world from nefarious supernatural creatures. Pengelly’s Brian Helsing series is just this sort of book with one major twist—Brain Helsing has no traditionally heroic qualities and apparently no aptitude for learning them. While geeky and not-unintelligent, he hasn’t an athletic bone in his body and he doesn’t have the mindset that one traditionally associates with the sort of person who would go seek out monsters threatening civilization. In fact, he’s so not the hero that the good guys have to physically coerce him into training and going on missions.

So it’s an unusual sort of book and it takes too long for the story to develop, but Pengelly does manage to weave Brian’s unheroic nature and past into a solution for the ultimate problem in the novel in a convincing and frankly touching way. Everyone who’s watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or read anything in this genre has wondered what they would do if they were chosen as the slayer. This book offers a more plausibly realistic answer to that question than many of us would wish was true. It’s a fun read with a lot of potential to be even more so as the series progresses.

Accidental Witch by Gemma Perfect

This short novel is the first book in a new series. It has a lot of potential—a feisty cast of teenagers and a highly dangerous political situation which promises to make future books even more interesting. There is a lot of action and once Elsie becomes the head witch, the plot moves very rapidly. The greatest strength of the novel is the interactions of the teens—they’re rarely nice to each other which was unpleasant but credible. Their parents were not particularly impressive—a mess of prejudices in addition to amazing shortsightedness—but again that was quite believable. My biggest complaint with the story was that we do not actually see much of the other races in action—i.e. using their powers. Hopefully this will be addressed in future books in the series.

I received this book from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

Talking with the Dead by K. L. Phelps

There’s a spunky, upbeat, somewhat funny vibe to this novel that pleasantly reminded me of the Stephanie Plum series. Unfortunately, banter is just about all that this book has. The plot (more on that later) is very slow to develop and all of the characters seem to be a bit slow in their mental faculties. So despite a really enjoyable beginning, my enthusiasm for the novel quickly waned.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the newly found power of our heroine to talk to dead people. She hasn’t actually done this at the beginning of the book and everyone (including her vampire roommate who doesn’t appear to have anything vampiric about him) is worried that the power will drive the heroine insane. The heroine is very upset about this possibility—especially the likelihood that ghosts will begin to follow her home. So naturally our heroine visits a cemetery on multiple occasions where she begins interacting with her recently departed Uncle Jimmy.

Lots of people are interested in Uncle Jimmy and they ransack his house searching for something. It never appears to occur to our heroine and her friends until very late in the book that the thing they could be looking for might be her legacy from him, left for her in a safe deposit box. That turns out to be more of a clue than an ending, but by that time I was only completing the book because I’d gone so far with it already. Eventually, they blindly stumble into the endgame, and everyone has a happily ever after (at least until the new book).

There’s nothing wrong with good banter, but a novel has to have a lot more than that to work. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case in this one.

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

This novel was a delightful surprise. I picked it up on a whim because I liked the idea of a psychic travel agent getting herself into a little bit of trouble when she changes her client’s flight reservations without telling him. He’s upset—until the plane crashes. Then she has some explaining to do. Since he’s a cop who has a cold case that could use a good psychic, the rest is history.

The mystery was okay, but you can get a good mystery in a few ten thousand books. What I liked was the development of the psychic character and the cop’s daughter. The psychic has spent her whole life being quiet about her abilities, but has started to become more comfortable with coming out of the closet. She helps a local bar with an event she calls Clairvoyant Karaoke which was just a sweet idea. And it was fun to watch her starting to understand the limits of her ability. The cop’s daughter was fun too, because she gave us the best look into her father as the police detective tries to keep his slightly rebellious kid on the straight and narrow.

There’s nothing profound in this novel, and that’s a relief. What Cherie Priest gives the reader is an enjoyable quirky mystery with just a touch of romance.

The Man from Rome by Dylan James Quarles

This is a novel about deep and abiding hate. The kind of hate that only grows over time and finds no price too great if it holds the promise of vengeance. It is perhaps ironic that the triggering incident of this raging animosity was a very small act of rejection.

In the ancient past, before the humble beginnings of the city of Rome, two immortals met. The first (the goddess, Diana) attempted to seduce the other (he who will become the Man from Rome) who drove her away with the warning that she and her kind (i.e. the other gods) should stay away from what will become Rome. Instead of listening, Diana decides to destroy the man who threatened her instead. Some three thousand or more years later, she is still trying. But this time she has a particularly insidious plan…

This whole book felt like a spy-thriller to me, but one with supernatural characters at least two of whom are close to immortal. The cast is wonderful. The Man from Rome himself is properly enigmatic and occasionally extraordinarily frightening. His enemies are intriguing as well, and the weapon they have chosen to use on him—taken out of the pages of mythology—was absolutely fascinating. The humans drawn into the conflict are both extremely sympathetic as they seek to be something more than sacrificial pawns. The plot was extremely well thought out, the action pulse-pounding, and the mystery intriguing. And while I knew very little about the geography of the city of Rome before I started reading, the author succeeded in making me feel transported to that ancient city. If you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure with a lot of twists and turns, I think you’ll enjoy The Man from Rome.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Princess of Wands by John Ringo

I’ve read this book at least four times. It’s a modern urban fantasy in which a soccer mom, Barb Everette, devout Episcopalian woman, finds herself confronting one of the elder gods from the Cthulhu mythos and after that gets pulled into an organization that helps the government handle Special Circumstances. The book is structured in three major (and one minor) parts and it moves very quickly in three of the four, keeping up a level of excitement while Ringo builds a fascinating world of secret investigations into things pretty much everyone believes the general public of the world is better off not knowing anything about.

Barb is a very interesting and unusual central character. She’s a military brat with extensive martial arts and weapons training, but she’s also a soccer mom with all that that implies. One day she gets fed up with her mundane existence and over her husband’s protests decides to take a weekend off for herself. She gets off her track and ends up broken down in a small town in the bayou which just happens to be the site from which a serial killer has been operating as he attempts to cause the manifestation of one of the elder gods. This is not a coincidence but, we assume, the result of the subtle influence of God getting Barb to the one place the world most needs her to be. The resulting action is well developed.

The second section of the book is much lower key, but just as interesting. Barb is brought into the U.S. organization that deals with Special Circumstances and learns a lot about people that are very different from her. They are a colorful group that don’t all get along with each other, but they are the best line of defense that America has for dealing with supernatural threats, of which there are many.

The third part of the book is the longest and the slowest. Barb is brought in on the investigation of a serial murderer with special circumstances. Her area of investigation is a science fiction convention, and Ringo has way too much fun going into the details of who attends conventions and what happens there. The excuse to do this is to identify suspects who might be the killer, but I’ve read the book four times and I still can’t keep track of the wide host of possible suspects. I would have liked this section to be cut in half. It’s good once all hell breaks loose, but pretty slow before that.

Finally, there’s a very nice extended epilogue in which Barb has to deal with a small but real problem at home.

As you can tell from the fact that I’ve read the book four times, I love this novel. If you like supernatural investigations and combat, this is a good book for you to try out.

Queen of Wands by John Ringo

In Princess of Wands, John Ringo introduced the world to Barb Everette, a soccer Mom who discovers the hard way that the occult and the supernatural are very deadly perils in the world today. Fortunately, Barb is both a devout Protestant and a military brat with extensive martial arts and weapons training. The combination makes her a very effective warrior of the light in this enjoyable urban fantasy series.

In Princess of Wands, Barb joins forces with a secret organization composed of an eclectic group of wiccans, devotes of the Norse gods, Buddhists, etc. who for centuries have been trying to protect the world from supernatural evil. They are secretly assisted by government teams investigating cases they euphemistically term “special circumstances”.

Queen of Wands is divided into three novellas. The first involves what I would consider to be a standard investigation for Barb. Bad things are happening that the police are having trouble understanding—things bad enough that Barb’s friend is yanked out of her body and trapped on the astral plane by the bad guys. Barb has to go in and solve the “real world” problem before she can even think of trying to help her friend. Ringo makes the investigation interesting and the ultimate threat fun—showing how some supernatural phenomena have filtered into the culture through movies and television. It’s a good, exciting, story.

The second builds on Ring’s fascination with science fiction conventions. While in the previous book, I thought he did this rather poorly, he’s fixed his problems in this sequel. Picture a science fiction convention on the astral plane in which serious spiritual players are involved and maneuvering against each other in ways that will seriously affect our earth. Barb’s friend is in the middle of this problem, but handicapped by not remembering much about her earthly existence. It’s a fun story in which we see the effects of actions taken in the opening novella play out in this one—if you keep your eyes open to recognize what is happening.

The third story is the best of the lot, because Special Circumstances are finally coming out of the closet in a very big way. Families are being slain horribly. Women are being kidnapped for a fate that is even more horrible. And a test of faith (or faiths) is confronting the nation and it’s very easy to imagine America failing.

This is a good one. I really wish Ringo would write a third book in this series.

Double, Double, Love and Trouble by Sylvia Schultz

This book is more about the romance and sexual tension—complete with dreams about Hugh Jackman—than the nominal plotline. A documentary film producer comes to a small town with a heavy population of witches to make a film about ghosts. The two fated love interests don’t get off to a good start but that doesn’t slow them down. The ghosts should have been the highlight of the story, but didn’t quite get the depth and attention they deserve. If you like a lot of romance with just a little supernatural, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

One Foot in the Grave by Wm. Mark Simmons

This novel starts out strong with Simmons’ hero, Chris Csejthe, trying to deal with having lost his wife and daughter a year before while also working with his doctor to try and understand why he is increasingly sensitive to sunlight. For the reader who has picked up an urban fantasy, this is an easy question to answer. Chris is becoming a vampire. Part of what makes the first portion of this novel so interesting is the effort to find out why Chris is changing. Thrown into the mix is Chris’ overly slow introduction to the supernatural world. Things don’t really begin to jump until two critical things happen—Chris gets reason to suspect that his wife is not dead after all (or maybe she is undead) and Chris starts having nightmares about what really happened the day he lost his family (and which it turns out he doesn’t remember clearly at all).

This storyline is very well done and quite exciting. Unfortunately, the book slows down again as it turns into a quest for a rogue vampire killing people near where Chris used to live. This is one of those things that I think the vampire community should have been alert to earlier. Weird deaths and disappearances are often a sign that vampires are active and the region Chris used to live in seemed to have a lot of those.

As the novel develops, Egyptian mythology and Count Dracula begin to factor into the story and Chris continues to grow in power without actually finishing his transformation and becoming a vampire. He also continues to be—well, not suicidal, but not interested in continuing his life if he becomes a vampire. This adds a lot of tension as he struggles to bring about a permanent ending to the problem of the rogue.

This is a slow moving but very interesting novel.

White Trash Warlock by David R. Slayton

I’d been planning to read this book for a while, but when it finally found its way to the top of my “to read” pile I found myself wishing it hadn’t. Adam is an interesting character, but his actions in the book didn’t appear to be “in character” for him. To the point, the whole book depends on his dropping everything to go and help a brother he is estranged from. The reason they’re estranged? The brother had Adam committed for seeing things with his magical abilities. The reason Bobby needs Adam to come help him? Bobby’s wife is in trouble and Bobby “saw” something supernatural with his own magical abilities. Stop and think about that for a moment. Bobby knew Adam’s powers were real and had him committed anyway. And Adam decides that must not really be important because this jerk needs his help now. So he not only drops everything, but puts his life in very serious dangers multiple times for a man who can’t even be polite to him. I never understood why he would do this.

This fundamental problem really spoiled the book for me. There was plenty of action and frankly a lot of it was good action. But I never understood why Adam was doing what he did in the novel from a “motivational” point of view. And most of the time, I felt like Bobby not only didn’t respect Adam, he was hostile to Adam because (as we learn later) Adam represents a part of his life he rejected. So, why again, was Adam helping this jerk?

Investigation, Mediation, Vindication by Chris Tullbane

I love the idea behind this novel. Multiple fantasy races live side by side with humans without humans knowing it. Occasionally these groups come into conflict with each other. When they do, they use a mediator to try and resolve the problems peacefully because when open warfare breaks out, cities often get destroyed.

At the start of this novel, every mediator in San Francisco is murdered except one—an incompetent PI with no practical experience and no knowledge that anyone but humans live in the world. If he fails, it is likely the whole city will be destroyed.

I like the main character and I really like the demigod of nightmares. This story could have been great. Unfortunately, it is at least twice as long as it should be, and that extra length really dragged this novel down. Most of its charm comes in the hero responding to the supernatural and the demigod of nightmares trying to make himself understood. The mystery at the heart of the story was transparent from moment one. Before we even learned what item was stolen to precipitate the crisis, I had identified the culprit and the culprit’s motivations. That wouldn’t have been bad if the novel had been significantly shorter, but it isn’t, and I quickly reached the point (even before we met the demigod of nightmares) where I just wanted the book to be done. Fortunately, the demigod brightened things up for a while. And the stolen item is quirky enough to be worth a couple of laughs, but it wasn’t enough to salvage things and make this book the great novel it should have been.

So I give the author lots of points for a fun idea with a couple of great characters, but wish desperately that he could have found an editor to help him make the idea work.

A Witch Called Red by Sami Valentine

Valentine has set up an interesting backdrop to this novel that was probably inspired by the vampire character, Angel, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Angel killed a gypsy, her father cursed him by restoring his soul so that he could feel the guilt of decades of his horrific actions. In A Witch Called Red, the man who restored the vampires’ souls publicized how to do it so that now, a significant percentage of vampires are “handicapped” with genuine human emotions. It’s a fascinating, and as far as I know unique, setting.

The witch of the title is an amnesiac who is found by a vampire hunter after apparently surviving a vampire attack. Discovering her past is a significant motivating factor for Red that is made more complicated by her strong resemblance to a woman many of the vampires in the story knew a century earlier. We don’t get total satisfaction here as the mystery of Red’s past is something clearly intended to be further explored in the next novel but many of these tantalizing clues captured my interest and made me eager to learn more.

The actual plot of this book is a murder mystery that quickly becomes enmeshed in complex vampire politics. I love well done politics and vampires with their centuries-long grudges really enrich a good political mystery. Valentine takes full advantage of these possibilities and it’s a major strength of the novel.

So this is a strong book with lots of actions and a good mystery forming its core, but I do have two complaints to register. First, the novel is at least twenty percent too long mostly because of endlessly chatty dialogue that didn’t do much to advance the plot. Second, there is a really unfortunate break with basic physics toward the end of the book—melting a bullet in flight doesn’t cause the molten metal to lose its forward momentum and drop straight to the ground. Other than these two things, A Witch Called Red, is a great opening to a new series and promises more excitement to come.

I received this book free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

The Hammer Commission by Jan Van Stry

This was one of Van Stry's more convincing novels. Set in a world very much like our own, this is the story of an agent of The Hammer Commission—a centuries old department of the Catholic Church dedicated to protecting the world from demons, devils and other evil creatures. Unfortunately, someone (or something) is taking out the field agents of the Commission and that means our hero is a marked man. It doesn’t help that he and his boss don’t get along and that the distrust between them gets him shut out of the investigation.

There’s a lot to like about this story. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and would like to see more about how the supernatural elements of this world work. A few of the characters (such as the King of Las Vegas) were particularly intriguing. In addition there are a few nicely sprung surprises which kept the story very interesting. On the other hand, I knew who the big bad guy was the first time I met him and I don’t think Stryvant intended me to identify him quite that quickly.

The single best part of the novel is the ending. This was well set up and I found it extremely satisfying. I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series.

Poseidon’s Children by Michael West

This excellent novel by Michael West strikes me as a reinterpretation of Lovecraft’s classic Dunwich Horror with a little legacy of Atlantis thrown in for good measure. The first portion of the book is a half-mystery as West introduces a cast loosely connected by their ties to organized-crime boss, Roger Hays. As the remains of Atlantis are discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, half-man/half-fish creatures begin to haunt the waters off the small east coast tourist trap of Colonial Bay. The reader knows there are monsters, but the characters in the novel do not. That’s why I refer to the plot as a “half-mystery”—the reader knows a lot of what is going on and watches as the various protagonists start to uncover the horrifying truth. By the end of the first part of the novel, the whole cast is converging on Colonial Bay for a variety of reasons. They are about to discover a more literal definition of the term “tourist trap” than the one we generally mean.

The second and third parts of Poseidon’s Children watches the various protagonists from Part I arrive at Colonial Bay and learn there are a nightmare’s worth of mythical creatures hidden under the surface. The tension just keeps ratcheting higher with each successive chapter. There’s a lot of good action here, but I found the politics within the community of “monsters” even more fascinating. On the one hand, we find the fanatics who are ready to announce their presence to the world by eating a lot of people. On the other hand, you have more pragmatic creatures who recognize that the humans who defeated them millennia ago are now far more numerous and have much deadlier weapons. Yet recognizing that this nest of creatures probably doesn’t spell the end of humanity all by itself doesn’t make the danger to the humans in the area any less severe. People die in this series and West keeps you guessing as to who will die next.

I enjoyed two of the organized crime-types (Horror Show and Roger Hays) more than the technical good guys in the story. I think that’s because when you’re dealing with human-eating monsters, people who are tough enough to fight back look good no matter what their other drawbacks. I enjoyed the fight scenes and the conclusion of the story quite a bit, but it’s the epilogue that truly got me excited for the sequel. I’m definitely planning to read West’s next book.

Harbinger, P.I. 1 Lost Soul by Adam Wright

Lost Soul introduces Alec Harbinger, who makes his living as a private investigator of paranormal incidents. He’s also a member of a secret society who tries to keep paranormal threats contained, but the society is angry at him and has sent him from Chicago to rural Maine where he expects to find no work at all. Obviously, there would be no series if he was correct in his assessment, so Harbinger quickly discovers that rural Maine is teaming with paranormal activity.

The mystery kept my interest. The book moves along as a pretty good clip. Harbinger and his assistant and his friend who survived a classic “slasher movie” style problem were all good characters. The one thing I was dissatisfied with was that I don’t have a sense of Harbinger’s abilities yet. He clearly has a lot of knowledge and a lot of training. He uses magically empowered items. But it’s unclear to me if he has any magical abilities of his own. Hopefully this will become clear in future novels.

Harbinger, P.I. 2 Buried Memory by Adam Wright

After taking the time in the first novel to introduce the small rural town in Maine which appears to be the heart of the series, Wright pulls Harbinger over to England for most of the second novel. There he has to interact with a father who can best be described as a self-centered jerk and despite not liking him, immediately does everything daddy asks every time. It lessened my respect for the private detective who is supposed to be tough and unyielding. Yes, I get it that our interactions with family are often different from our interactions with the world, but when dad calls and says I’m sending the private jet for you tomorrow and hangs up, I think the proper response would be to ignore the arrival of the jet until dad has the courtesy to explain why he needs you to drop everything and fly across the Atlantic to see him.

Overall, this book was focused on Harbinger’s missing memories. It turns out that there are more of them missing then he thought and I suspect that more and more of them are going to pop up as the series progresses.

The best thing about the book was the nine witches who have a gift for prophecy. Prophecy is a challenge for any writer as they need to be vague but interesting. Wright solves this problem by having the nine witches each give little phrases of the prophecy so that it comes out so disjointed that you just want to ignore that they said anything. But it worked for me.

Harbinger, P.I. 3 Dark Magic by Adam Wright

Harbinger has to team up with the sheriff who hates him to figure out what happened to the sheriff’s wife. There’s also another P.I. involved who has been accused of a murder that she quite obviously couldn’t have committed. The heart of the problem is a villain who is trying to bring an elder god to earth and I enjoyed everyone’s efforts to keep that from happening. The sheriff gets to discover the hard way that the supernatural is real. This should make him and Harbinger partners in the future, but I doubt that will actually happen.