The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy

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.

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.