Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Times (Huntsmen #1) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook,
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #1
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Huntsmen, according to the Church, were damned, their blood unclean, unholy. Yet for Rosemary and Aaron Harker the Church was less important than being ready to stand against the Uncanny as not being prepared could lead to being dead.
The year is 1913. America—and the world—trembles on the edge of a modern age. Political and social unrest shift the foundations; technology is beginning to make its mark.
But in the shadows, things from the past still move. Things inhuman, uncanny.
And the Uncanny are no friend to humanity.
But when Aaron and Rosemary Harker go to investigate the suspicious death of a distant relative, what they discover could turn their world upside down—and change the Huntsmen forever

My Review:

Uncanny Times feels like it’s set in the ‘Weird West’, but it’s not. Still feels that way though. Rather, it’s set in a kind of alternate early-20th century New England, but the New England that grew out of Washington Irving’s creepy folklore-ish stories such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker might never have hunted a ‘headless horseman’ but whatever they’re after in tiny Brunson, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario – in November! – is certainly equally uncanny. They just don’t know exactly what it is – at least not yet.

It’s their job to find out. The Harkers are Huntsmen, from a long line of people who have the ability to deal with the uncanny. They go where they are sent, figure out the nature of the threat they have to face – and eliminate it without involving local law enforcement or putting the local populace in danger – or at least in any more danger than they already are.

But this case is different from the beginning. They are summoned, not by one of their superiors in the Huntsmen but rather by an old family friend who always knew about the uncanny and those who are tasked with fighting it.

Or rather, by the man’s widow, who makes it clear that his death was as uncanny as the creatures that Rosemary and Aaron usually hunt. One of the man’s last requests was that if there was anything suspicious about his death that his wife ask the Harkers to come. There was and she has.

And the man was right – his death was at the hands of something uncanny. Something that doesn’t seem to be recorded in the rather extensive records of the Huntsmen. But whatever it is, or was, or wants to gorge itself into becoming, it’s up to Rosemary and Aaron to take it out – or go down trying.

Escape Rating B-: Uncanny Times is kind of a gothic version of historical and/or urban fantasy, with a bit of alternate history thrown in for bodies and spice. I call it gothic because the creeping horror is very slow burn, and it’s imbued in the atmosphere of the town long before we see it manifest as any sort of creature that the story can sink its teeth into – or that can sink its teeth into the characters.

This also doesn’t read like the version of 1913 that history records. Instead, it reads like the Weird West, an alternate version of the late 19th century – or what followed in this case – where the things that go bump in the night are real and history has gone down a different – and much creepier – leg of the trousers of time.

So this may be pre-World War I by our calendar, and Woodrow Wilson is President – but he’s no pacifist in this version of history. So it’s 1913 by way of something like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker – we just haven’t seen what the equivalent of the massive earthquake was. At least not yet. The world of the Huntsmen reads more like that of Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose, or Lindsay Schopfer’s Keltin Moore than it does the pre-WW1 world we’re familiar with. While the Huntmen organization and what it fights reads as very similar to the Circuit Riders of The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley’s alternate world.

The story in Uncanny Times is a slow build of creeping horror mixed with more than a bit of confused investigation. It takes quite a while to get itself going, but that feels like its a necessary part of the entire story. Not only is this the first book in a projected series, but the creature that the Harkers are hunting for isn’t something that is supposed to exist even in their version of the world.

Added to that, they have to operate in plain sight while concealing pretty much everything they really are and really do. Most people don’t believe, and the ones that do mostly can’t be trusted. They even have to hide the true nature of their dog, because he isn’t just a dog. Botheration (best name ever!), besides being a VERY good boy, is also a hellhound and an expert tracker of both ordinary humans AND the creatures that the Huntsmen hunt.

And he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Botheration is an awesome dog. (Don’t worry about Botheration, he’s bigger and stronger than most things that he hunts – and he comes out of this story every bit as fine as he went into it. I promise!)

I recognize that I’m a bit all over the map about Uncanny Times. I picked this up because I loved the author’s Retrievers series, which still has a place in my heart and on my physical bookshelf even 20 years later. But I have to confess that the lightning hasn’t struck again in that I’ve tried some of her later series but haven’t gotten hooked.

And I have to say that I liked Uncanny Times but didn’t love it as much as I hoped. It takes a long time to get itself going, and its two points of view characters are very private people. We don’t get to see nearly enough of what makes either of them tick. A lot of their investigation is obscured by fogs of various kinds and it makes the story murky as well.

But I loved Botheration. And the setting is fascinating because it feels like alternate history but the reviews don’t make it sound like it actually is – which really makes me wonder if I read the same thing everyone else did. So I’m torn, but whole in my conviction that I’ll pick up the next book in the series, whenever it comes out, at least to see what Botheration is bothering next!

Review: Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher

Review: Dead Man’s Hand by James J. ButcherDead Man's Hand (The Unorthodox Chronicles, #1) by James J. Butcher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Unorthodox Chronicles #1
Pages: 384
Published by Ace on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of his renowned father, James J. Butcher's debut novel is a brilliant urban fantasy about a young man who must throw out the magical rule book to solve the murder of his former mentor.
On the streets of Boston, the world is divided into the ordinary Usuals, and the paranormal Unorthodox. And in the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, the Auditors are the magical elite, government-sanctioned witches with spells at their command and all the power and prestige that comes with it. Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby is...not one of those witches.
After flunking out of the Auditor training program and being dismissed as "not Department material," Grimsby tried to resign himself to life as a mediocre witch. But he can't help hoping he'll somehow, someway, get another chance to prove his skill. That opportunity comes with a price when his former mentor, aka the most dangerous witch alive, is murdered down the street from where he works, and Grimsby is the Auditors' number one suspect.
Proving his innocence will require more than a little legwork, and after forming a strange alliance with the retired legend known as the Huntsman and a mysterious being from Elsewhere, Grimsby is abruptly thrown into a life of adventure, whether he wants it or not. Now all he has to do is find the real killer, avoid the Auditors on his trail, and most importantly, stay alive.

My Review:

Leslie Mayflower’s partner is dead. Well, his ex-partner, as Mayflower has retired from the Department of Unorthodox Affairs. But Mayflower, better known – and righteously feared – in that community as the Huntsman feels like he owes his former partner one last debt, so he lets himself be convinced to view the scene of her murder.

What he finds is a puzzle he can’t resist. His partner, Samantha Mansgraf, one of the baddest baddasses to ever work for the Department, left a message in her own blood to “Kill Grimsby” after obliterating everyone and everything at the scene except her own mangled corpse.

Mayflower is having a difficult enough time believing that anyone could have taken Mansgraf out, but he’s absolutely positive it couldn’t have been Grimsby. Because Grimsby is an utter failure at pretty much everything – including being a witch and applying to work for the Department – while Mansgraf was, well, Mansgraf. A name which literally translates to ‘man’s grave’ because she was just that powerful, paranoid, and deadly.

Mayflower wants to avenge his former partner. He knows he can’t trust the Department, that’s part of why he retired in the first place. He’s not sure that Grimsby is either trustworthy or even remotely capable of assisting him. After all, the man is currently working as a clown for children’s birthday parties at the worst and most inedible food franchise in the city if not the entire planet. And he’s failing at that.

But both men are broken and both need someone to help them stand up – or at least someone to stand up for. They may not be much, separately or even together – but they’re all they’ve got.

Which gives them each the one thing they need more than anything else. The chance to finally be enough.

Escape Rating B: Once upon a time, at the turn of the most recent century, there was a wizard listed in the Chicago phone book. The temptation to compare Boston’s Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby to Harry Dresden is not surprisingly a strong one, considering that Dresden’s creator and Grimsby’s are father and son, both playing in the same urban fantasy storybox.

But the 21st century world of Dead Man’s Hand isn’t Chicago in 2000, although it does take some of its inspiration from a different bit of intellectual property of the same era.

In 1997, a little movie called Men in Black began a franchise that is still stuttering along. (The reviews of the most recent entry in the series were not exactly stellar.) MiB is set in a near-future world where aliens walk among us in disguise. Naturally, there are agents that monitor those aliens, ensuring that the secret of Earth’s place in the wider galaxy is kept, at the cost of losing memories and/or exile or outright termination or all of the above. Those agents are the titular men in black, and the agency that employs them is huge, powerful and entirely too subject to that old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

In urban fantasy, which Dead Man’s Hand most definitely is, the strange, weird, wonderful and sometimes deadly and dangerous things that walk among us aren’t from ‘out there’ so much as ‘over there’ or, all too frequently, ‘below’. Or, again, all of the above. In this world, those humans who can see and work in ‘Elsewhere’ are witches (whether male or female). There are, however, plenty of other beings from ‘Elsewhere’ that are capable of messing with humans, whether ‘Usual’ (garden-variety humanity) or ‘Unorthodox’, meaning witches and a few others.

And there’s an agency set up to monitor and control anyone or anything who can see ‘Elsewhere’, whether human or not. Just like the aforementioned Men in Black, that agency is huge, powerful and entirely too subject to that very same old saw about power and corruption.

That the offbeat pairing of experienced, emotionally stunted and permanently grizzled Mayflower with wide-eyed newbie Grimsby has more than a passing resemblance to the pair of agents in the first MiB movie feels like more than coincidence. Although I keep seeing Sam Elliott as Mayflower and let’s just say that STILL not a bad look. At all.

Ahem…

The story in Dead Man’s Hand begins with Mayflower’s search for revenge but quickly morphs into a search for a magical McGuffin that he hopes will lead to that revenge. But, as is true in most of urban fantasy, magical McGuffins are never exactly who, what or where everyone thinks they are, and that’s especially true here.

What makes that work is the way that Mayflower and Grimsby discover that they are each not quite what the other thought, either.

There’s a lot of running and chasing in pursuit of that McGuffin – or in retreat from the other forces in search of that same item. One of the locations that chase led through left a bad taste in at least this reader’s mouth. It’s possible that the bit chasing down body parts in the sex dungeon run by demons was intended to be funny, but if so the joke didn’t land. And probably shouldn’t have.

On my other hand – and I have plenty to choose from in this one as there’s one extra – the dig down through the layers of misdirection and the nearly archaeological level digging required to find either Mayflower’s or Grimsby’s remaining faith in themselves took us into some emotional dark places and gave readers plenty of dirty deeds to look forward to uncovering in future entries in the series.

I certainly am.

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck

Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel BeckSmall Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy
Series: Witchlore #1
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of THE EX HEX and PAYBACK'S A WITCH, a fun, witchy rom-com in which a bookstore owner who is fighting to revitalize a small midwestern town clashes with her rival, the mayor, and uncovers not only a clandestine group that wields a dark magic to control the idyllic river hamlet, but hidden powers she never knew she possessed.

Witches aren't real. Right?

No one has civic pride quite like Emerson Wilde. As a local indie bookstore owner and youngest-ever Chamber of Commerce president, she’d do anything for her hometown of St. Cyprian, Missouri. After all, Midwest is best! She may be descended from a witch who was hanged in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials, but there’s no sorcery in doing your best for the town you love.Or is there?
As she preps Main Street for an annual festival, Emerson notices strange things happening around St. Cyprian. Strange things that culminate in a showdown with her lifelong arch-rival, Mayor Skip Simon. He seems to have sent impossible, paranormal creatures after her. Creatures that Emerson dispatches with ease, though she has no idea how she’s done it. Is Skip Simon…a witch? Is Emerson?
It turns out witches are real, and Emerson is one of them. She failed a coming-of-age test at age eighteen—the only test she’s ever failed!—and now, as an adult, her powers have come roaring back.
But she has little time to explore those powers, or her blossoming relationship with her childhood friend, cranky-yet-gorgeous local farmer Jacob North: an ancient evil has awakened in St. Cyprian, and it’s up to Emerson and her friends—maybe even Emerson herself—to save everything she loves.

My Review:

Once upon a time (mostly in the 1980s and 1990s) there were a whole lot of books telling stories about people (usually young women) who discovered that the mundane world all around them hid secret places and even more secretive people filled with magic – and danger. And that the protagonist of those stories either belonged in those magical places or discovered them or had to save them.

Or all of the above.

Emerson Wilde used to read all of those books, tucked inside the safe and comforting shelves of her beloved grandmother’s bookstore, Confluence Books. But her grandmother has passed, and left the store, her quirky Victorian house, and her legacy to Emerson.

Even if Emerson doesn’t remember the full extent of that legacy or her family’s place in St. Cyprian Missouri, a beautiful little town that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Emerson thinks of St. Cyprian as a magical little town, one she’s proud to be a part of as a small business owner and president of its Chamber of Commerce. She doesn’t know the half of it.

But she’s about to find out.

Escape Rating B: Just like Emerson, I read all those books too, which meant that I sorta/kinda knew how this one was going to go. If you took a selection of those books and threw them in a blender with A Marvelous Light by Freya Marske, Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson and just a bit of Manipulative Dumbledore-style Harry Potter fanfiction you’d get something a lot like Small Town, Big Magic.

Not that that’s a bad thing, as each of those antecedents has plenty to recommend it. And if you like any of them you’ll probably like at least some parts of this first book in the Witchlore series.

But as much as I loved the premise – or most of the premises – that make up this story, there were a few things that drove me utterly bananas.

Many of those original urban fantasy-type stories focus on a relatively young protagonist who has their world view overturned when they learn that magic is real, all around them, and that they have at least some of it.

Emerson’s “unbusheling” as it’s called in A Marvelous Light isn’t like that at all. Because she did know about magic until she was 18 – and that’s where the Harry Potter fanfiction reference comes in. Emerson’s memory of magic was wiped because she failed a test of power – and that whole scenario is suspicious in a way that does not get resolved at the end of this first book in the series.

Second, she is an adult when her memories come back after an attack by a magical creature. The tragedy of this story is that her closest friends have all stayed with her, stayed her besties, for the decade or so that her memory has been gone. And they’ve all retained their magic, their complete memories, and have kept the secret. The thought of that compromise is kind of hellish, that they all loved her enough to stick by her – and that they all feared the witchy powers-that-be enough to keep her utterly in the dark about the truth of their world.

So when Emerson’s powers start coming back, her friends are equal parts scared and thrilled. Thrilled they can finally be their full selves around her. Scared that the powerful witch council will learn that she’s broken the memory block and that they’ve all told her all the things they promised not to tell under threat of their own memory wipes – or worse.

And they are collectively even more frightened because Emerson’s powers must have returned for a reason. A reason that is likely to be even bigger and more threatening than whatever that council will do to them.

What kept making me crazy was that in the midst of all this her friends were just as over-protective and condescending as any of the adults assisting a young first-time magic user are in any of those stories from the 80s and 90s. The situation frustrated the hell out of Emerson, and I was right there with her.

I also think it made her learning curve drag out a bit more than the story needed.

But there’s something else, and it looms even larger now that I’ve finished the book. There are two antagonists in this story. The first, and the largest by nature, is, quite literally, nature. An evil menace is filtering into the confluence of the rivers that sustain the magic of not just St. Cyprian, but the entire magical world. Emerson’s powers have emerged because it is her task to lead the coven that can stop it – even if she has to sacrifice herself in the stopping.

Howsomever, the focus through the entire story is on the other big bad – that leader of the local council who memory-wiped Emerson, exiled her sister Rebekah, drove her parents out of St. Cyprian and has generally been manipulating the entire town through her coven/council for some reason that has not yet been revealed.

And isn’t revealed by the end of the story. So everything ends on a ginormous freaking cliffhanger. The evil menace in the waters seems to have been dealt with – at least for now. But the council has just arrived to deliver what their leader believes is a well-deserved smackdown for saving everyone’s asses.

Literally just arrived as the book doesn’t so much end as come to a temporary and frustrating halt in mid-looming threat.

And we still don’t know what the root cause of that conflict even is. The ending isn’t satisfying. I need to know why the leader seems to have had it in for Emerson and her entire family long before the events of this book. The evil in the water, as much as it needed to be eliminated, wasn’t personal – at least as far as we know. It needed to be resolved but it’s difficult to get invested in. I’m invested in seeing that manipulative witch get exactly what’s coming to her. And I didn’t even get a hint.

Hopefully the answers – or at least some of them – will be revealed in the second book in the series, Big Little Spells. Because I’m salivating for some just desserts to be served.

Review: Ruby Fever by Ilona Andrews

Review: Ruby Fever by Ilona AndrewsRuby Fever (Hidden Legacy, #6) by Ilona Andrews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Legacy #6
Pages: 384
Published by Avon Books on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

#1 New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews is back with the newest book in the exciting Hidden Legacy series—the thrilling conclusion to her trilogy featuring fierce and beautiful Prime magic user Catalina Baylor.
An escaped spider, the unexpected arrival of an Imperial Russian Prince, the senseless assassination of a powerful figure, a shocking attack on the supposedly invincible Warden of Texas, Catalina’s boss... And it’s only Monday.
Within hours, the fate of Houston—not to mention the House of Baylor—now rests on Catalina, who will have to harness her powers as never before. But even with her fellow Prime and fiancé Alessandro Sagredo by her side, she may not be able to expose who’s responsible before all hell really breaks loose.

My Review:

It is – much too nearly – the end of the world as the extended Baylor family knows it – entirely too many times. And they do not feel fine at all. But things will get better. Or they will die trying. Or both.

All too often it looks like both are barreling through the front door AND the back.

Ruby Fever is the sixth book in the awesome, urban fantasy/paranormal romantic suspense Hidden Legacy series that started with Burn for Me. As part of that series, it’s also the third and final book in the second trilogy, Catalina’s trilogy, that began with the interstitial novella Diamond Fire.

As the series chronicles the romantic and other adventures and misadventures of the Primes of House Baylor, there is hopefully another trilogy on the way featuring the youngest Baylor sister, Arabella.

That’s a long way of saying for pity’s sake don’t start here. There’s a whole lot of drama, worldbuilding and family manipulation with the best and worst motives packed into the story so far and it won’t make much sense without starting at one of the entry points, either Burn for Me or Diamond Fire.

Speaking of burning and fires, it feels like Ruby Fever opens in a fire fight. Not exactly, but pretty damn close. Because it’s not just a battle, House Baylor is at war with a rogue Russian Prime on one hand – and quite possibly the Russian Imperial House on the other.

And that’s where all the worldbuilding starts coming in.

The Hidden Legacy series takes place in an alternate version of the 21st century. One where, sometime in the 19th century, a mad Victorian chemist invented a serum that was intended to create supersoldiers.

And it sorta/kinda did. BUUUUT, as so often happens with mad scientists, things did not exactly go according to plan. Those superpowers turned out to be hereditary, and the resulting superpowered families had no loyalty to anyone but themselves and their families.

Over the intervening centuries, those superpowered families, now called Houses, pretty much came to control the world and are outside of any law except their own. It’s a dog-eat-dog, power corrupts absolutely kind of world. But there are rules that govern behavior – even bad behavior like outright warfare – between the Houses.

And the highest crime among the Houses – the one that is so verboten that no one even talks about it, is the theft of the superserum formula and any serum developed from it.

So of course that’s the war that House Baylor and their allies are right in the middle of. The question is whether they can manage to get out.

Escape Rating B: The premise of the Hidden Legacy series might sound a bit familiar. The world of the Arcane Society and its spinoffs (by Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle) has the same origin story. A Victorian era mad scientist develops a serum that gives some people super powers. What makes the series so different from one another is what happens after that.

The Arcane Society remained in the shadows. They are powerful but that power seldom manifests – or is allowed to manifest – as political power. (At least not until their descendants take to the stars in the Harmony series.)

In the Hidden Legacy version, the Primes take control of the world. No one can stop them except themselves and they rule everything. Not precisely in a political sense as it relates to mundanes, but the world is absolutely their oyster and they operate above any law but their own.

The result is not surprising but it is fascinating. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The only way to oppose such an absolute power is to have absolute power of one’s own. Which is pretty much what happens in Ruby Fever.

Or to put it another way, this entry in the series is about a lot of rich and powerful people behaving very, very badly – and being called to account for it by the only means possible. Bigger brains and superior firepower.

Howsomever, Ruby Fever is the culmination of pretty much everything that has happened in all the previous books in this series. Which does mean that a new reader can’t start here. But even for an long-time reader, it means that the pace of this story is absolutely relentless and quite frequently fairly grim – as there’s just so damn much to resolve in order to get all the open plot threads wrapped up.

A lot happens, a lot happens very fast, and if the last time you read the previous book in this series was when it came out back in 2020 (remember 2020, the year from hell?) it takes more than a bit to get oneself stuck back into this world.

At least for me, it felt like the constant barrage of serious shit going down and being blasted by the fan all over the Baylors went past being too much and into absolutely brutal. I think I’d have gotten the point with just a bit less of shit everywhere all the time or perhaps a bit more of something a bit lighter, like the escaped superpowered spider.

It does all come together, and once it finally does it’s a fantastic roller-coaster ride until the end. But getting there was kind of a rough ride.

If this turns out to be the last book in the series, it does wrap up everything – some of it in a bow, some of it in a shroud, but wrapped all the same. There is an opening left for Arabella’s story, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that at all. But if we don’t get it, we have plenty of closure for what has been a compelling series from the very first page.

Review: Till Sudden Death Do Us Part by Simon R. Green

Review: Till Sudden Death Do Us Part by Simon R. GreenTill Sudden Death Do Us Part (Ishmael Jones #7) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #7
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on April 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


A wedding. A murder. A 200-year-old curse: Ishmael Jones is plunged into a baffling investigation when he answers an old friend's call for help.

Although he hasn't seen Robert Bergin for 40 years, Ishmael feels duty bound to respond when his old friend calls for help. Robert's daughter Gillian is about to be married, and he is afraid she'll fall prey to the ancient family curse.
Arriving in rural Yorkshire, Ishmael and his partner Penny learn that the vicar who was to perform the ceremony has been found dead in the church, hanging from his own bell rope. With no clues, no evidence and no known motive, many locals believe the curse is responsible. Or is someone just using it as a smokescreen for murder? With the wedding due to take place the following day, Ishmael has just a few hours to uncover the truth.
But his investigations are hampered by sudden flashes of memory: memories of the time before he was human. What is it Ishmael's former self is trying to tell him ... ?

My Review:

I pulled this one from somewhere in the midst of the virtually towering TBR pile because I finished a book in one of this author’s other series for a Library Journal review and realized that I was still in the mood for his particular brand of snark and that I wasn’t caught up to Ishmael Jones yet.

So here we are. Or rather, there Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt are, in another play on a country house ghost story. One in which the ghost may not be real, but there really is something out to get Ishmael, Penny, and whoever either invited them or whom they need to protect from something that has gone loudly, seriously and with malice very much aforethought bump in the night.

Ishmael’s been invited to a wedding in Bradenford, Yorkshire, a rural town he’s never been to before and hopes never to be again even before the mess of this case.

The thing about Ishmael – well, honestly there are a LOT of things about Ishmael, most of which Penny Belcourt knows (because they met on a case in their first adventure, The Dark Side of the Road). Ishmael and now Penny work for a mysterious organization rather coyly named The Organization because Ishmael needs something that clandestine to hide him from all the ubiquitous security devices and agencies that have cropped up all over the world since he crash-landed his UFO in 1963. And hasn’t aged a day since.

He looks human because his ship fixed that before it went defunct. But it didn’t do a perfect job. It’s not just the lack of aging, it also locked away all his memories of who and what he was before.

But this is a case that seems designed to bring back more of his past than he has any desire to meet. Both his past passing for human AND his past as an alien monster. He’s not even sure which reveal is going to be worse.

Still, he and Penny come to Bradenford because he owes an old colleague more than he can ever repay. Even if his attempt at that repayment is going to reveal at least some of the secrets he’s been keeping. Because it’s been 40 years since Ishmael and Robert Bergin have met. Bergin shows every single one of those years – while Ishmael displays precisely none.

But Bergin reluctantly recognizes that he’s not the man he used to be, while Ishmael still very much is. And that’s exactly who Bergin needs, a skilled operator used to dealing with all the terrible and secret things that no one wants to admit exist.

There’s a curse on the Bergin family and it has reached out from the past to grab his daughter and everyone involved with her wedding to an actor who probably isn’t nearly good enough for her.

But no one deserves to get sliced to pieces by some monster with fangs, claws and a 200-year-old vendetta.

It’s up to Ishmael and Penny to figure out whether there really is a curse – or just someone taking advantage of the old legends for grisly purposes of their own.

Escape Rating B: This turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The author is very much an acquired taste – but one I acquired so long ago that when I get the craving nothing else will do.

What brings me back over and over is the snarkitude. Whoever the protagonist is in one of his series, they are all cut from the same snarky, wry, sarcastic cloth, thinking all the things we wish we’d thought at the time, making all the smart-assed observations – and still managing to get the dirty job done no matter who they piss off along the way.

Because there’s always someone – and usually multiples.

Part of what makes Ishmael Jones in particular so interesting are the built-in ironies of the whole setup. Ishmael is an alien investigating weird shit who doesn’t believe in demons, ghosts, spirits or any of the other psychic phenomena that the people he’s investigating are generally desperate to blame for whatever has gone wrong. He knows there’s weird shit out there, but he’s very much aware that there’s always a human agency behind it. Every once in a while, it’s a human agency he used to work for.

From Ishmael’s perspective, this is a story about his own past coming back to bite him. Both in the sense that he learns stuff he still didn’t want to know about his old friend Bergin and their mutual employer, but also because he’s feeling like his old identity is emerging from the shadows he’s kept it buried in for almost 60 years. He’s afraid of his own past and his inability to control it because Ishmael is the persona that Penny loves and he never wants to lose that.

But this is also a murder-mystery. Everyone in town wants it to be the old curse because no one wants to think there’s a brutal murderer roaming their peaceful little town. A mysterious curse brings tourists while a rampaging mundane murderer will drive everyone away. At least it ought to.

I have mixed feelings about the way the murders get solved. It could be interpreted as a bit of a cheap shot that got redeemed at the end with a clever twist. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Howsomever, I enjoyed my journey with Ishmael and Penny, so I’ll be back to see how Ishmael’s reconciliation between his past and his present continues in Night Train to Murder the next time I have a taste for extreme snarkitude blended with murder.

Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. HughesHeroic Hearts by Jim Butcher, Kerrie Hughes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 368
Published by Ace Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An all-star urban fantasy collection featuring short stories from #1 New York Times bestselling authors Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and more . . .
In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes--ordinary people who do the right thing--bravely step forward.
But running toward danger might cost them everything. . . .
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher's "Little Things," the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he'll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs's "Dating Terrors," the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more--if she can escape the dark magic binding her.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris's "The Return of the Mage," the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they've bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.
And in #1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong's "Comfort Zone," the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can't refuse a ghost pleading for help.
ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi

My Review:

I was looking for a bit of a change of pace to wrap this week’s reviews, so I turned to my favorite pick-me-up genre, urban fantasy, and to this excellent collection of it, Heroic Hearts, which features stories by some of the stars in the genre, while giving me a chance to explore worlds both familiar and not.

Four of the stories were set in worlds that I am at least somewhat familiar with; Jim Butcher’s Little Things, set of course in the Dresden Files, The Dark Ship by Anne Bishop in previously unexplored part of her World of the Others, Fire Hazard by Kevin Hearne in the Iron Druid Chronicles and Patricia Briggs’ Dating Terror in her Alpha & Omega spinoff of Mercy Thompson’s world.

What made both Little Things and Fire Hazard so much fun to read wasn’t just their familiarity but the way that both stories gave that familiarity a bit of a twist by telling the story from alternate points of view.

Harry Dresden is too busy to be the main character or narrator of Little Things. That role is reserved for the pixie Toot-Toot who leads the castle’s forces of pixies and other small creatures to fend off a gremlin invasion. While Toot-Toot and his minions start out just defending their beloved pizza, by the time the story is baked to its conclusion they’ve saved the whole castle and everyone in it – with a bit of assistance from Dresden’s cat Mister. Even if they can’t manage to help Dresden with his angst about the terrible “conomee” and his regular fight with the dread monster “budget”.

Fire Hazard, which deals with the very serious issue of the wide-spread fires in Australia, is both lightened and made a bit more profound – surprisingly so! – by being told from the perspective of Oberon, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound. While the fires were started through either natural causes or human error, there is something supernatural that is, quite literally, fanning the flames. That Atticus can take care of. But it’s Oberon’s meditations on the nature of courage and sausage that give this story both its heart and its humor.

The Dark Ship is one of the darker stories in the World of the Others, and that’s saying something because the world as a whole is often plenty dark. But what makes this one chilling isn’t the looming threat of the Others, it’s that the evil that men do is so terrible that the reader completely understands why the Others get involved – even though on this occasion the Others are not the target of that evil. I still think there’s reading crack somehow embedded into this series, because even in ebook form once I start one I can’t put the damn thing down.

I haven’t kept up – at all – with the Mercyverse. I read the series as it stood a long time ago, including the first Alpha & Omega book, and that was enough to make the world of this story feel familiar. In the end Dating Terror is a story about taking control of your own life with a bit of help from your friends, but it does it through a fake dating agency scenario that blends a subtle bit of humor with the righteous takedown of a monster.

The rest of the stories in this collection are either standalones or set in worlds I’m not familiar with. And for the most part that didn’t matter either way. Except for one story, Silverspell by Chloe Neill. It’s part of her Heirs of Chicagoland series. I liked it well enough as a standalone but I think there would have been more there, there if I were familiar with the series.

The one story that didn’t work for me was The Vampires Karamazov. There were plenty of villains in this one, but no real hero and the story was just dark and grim.

On the other hand, my favorite stories in the collection, Troll Life by Kerrie L. Hughes, Grave Gambles by R.R. Virdi and The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic by Jennifer Brozek were all set in worlds completely new to me.

Troll Magic features the troll probationary station master of a train line that takes paranormal creatures from one realm to another. It’s part of his magic to manage the station, make sure that no one is aboard who shouldn’t be, and keep the vending machines stocked. When a couple of runaways – and the villains who are chasing them – use his station for their confrontation, it’s up to the station master and his pet barghest to see justice done and evil get its just desserts, along with some help from some sentient and surprisingly gossipy trains.

Grave Gambles was interesting as a kind of paranormal variation on Quantum Leap – which seems apropos as that classic series might be coming back. But instead of science powering the leaps, it’s magic. Specifically the magic of meting out deathly justice to those who have escaped the earthly kind. It’s a quietly atmospheric story with a fascinating premise.

I liked The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic because it features two elderly ladies, one of whom would probably be excellent friends with the protagonist of An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good. It’s the story of two old witches who are comrades a bit more than they are friends, bringing their magical power to bear on an ancient terror that wants to consume their favorite museum – along with, most likely, the town it sits in.

I had mixed feelings about Return of the Mage by Charlaine Harris, and based on the reviews I’m not alone. I did rather like it, even though it isn’t really urban fantasy, but that’s because it reminds me a lot of episodes of both Stargate and Star Trek. It’s a story about a mage who has settled down on a primitive planet and made himself king, emperor and god even though he really ought to know better. The mage/mech/merc forces that come to pry him out of his cozy, exploitative little nest certainly do.

The last two stories are Train to Last Hope by Annie Bellet and Comfort Zone by Kelly Armstrong.

Comfort Zone reminded me a bit of the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris, in that Chloe sees – and speaks to – dead people. So the story is about helping a ghost save his little sister from the mess he got her in before he died because of said mess.

Train to Last Hope is the kind of Weird West story that haunts. Two women go on a quest to find out what happened to their daughter. They broke up a decade ago, because one accepted that the girl was dead while the other refused to let go. Not that either of them truly ever has let go of the girl or each other. One became a Reaper to harvest the souls of the dead in order to extend her search, while the other waits at Last Hope, the last stop of the train of the dead, hoping that one day her daughter will pass by. This story about closure is bittersweet and sticks with the reader once it’s done. It also reminds me more than a bit of T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door.

Escape Rating A-: This was a collection with plenty of great reading but surprisingly just the one story that didn’t work for me. There’s always at least one, but usually it’s more, so I’m very happy to have picked this up and read the lot. I do think the ones that are set in established worlds work better with at least some familiarity, but it is a great way to sample and see if you like what those worlds have to offer.

To make a long story short, if you love urban fantasy, this collection is fantastic – pun certainly intended. If you’re curious, this is a great place to start!

Mister rules, as cats always do, but Oberon, as always, is a very good boy indeed.

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda LeeThe Jade Setter of Janloon (Green Bone Saga #0.5) by Fonda Lee
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #0.5
Pages: 112
Published by Subterranean Press on April 30, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Fonda Lee returns to the world of the Green Bone Saga with a new standalone novella.

The rapidly changing city of Janloon is ruled by jade, the rare and ancient substance that enhances the abilities and status of the trained Green Bone warriors who run the island’s powerful clans.

Pulo Oritono is not one of those warriors. He’s simply an apprentice jade setter with dreams of securing clan patronage and establishing a successful business. His hopes are dashed, however, when a priceless jade weapon is stolen from the shop where he works.

Now, Pulo has three days to hunt down the thief, find the jade, and return it to its rightful owner if he wants to save his future prospects, the people he cares about, and his very life. The desperate mission will lead Pulo to old vendettas, vast corruption, and questions about everything and everyone he thought he knew.

My Review:

When I finished Jade Legacy at the end of the year, as much as it felt like the appropriately bittersweet ending to the epic Green Bone Saga, I was far from ready to let Janloon go. Settling into the opening pages of this book felt like a return to a place well-loved, and I sunk beneath its pages without even a ripple of wondering where or how things were. I was just glad to be back.

Even better, this little story, which combines a bit of the “Portrait of the Pillar as a young man” with a bit of mystery and features not the doings of the high and mighty but rather gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an average person in Janloon just two years before the events that open the awesome Jade City and kick off that saga.

So for readers who loved the Green Bone Saga, this is a great way to visit those old friends and see what they were like before they became old. But for readers who have heard how terrific the series is, but aren’t quite ready to tackle all 2,000 pages of it, The Jade Setter of Janloon is a great way to dip a toe into these deep waters to see if you’ll enjoy the swim.

It begins simply enough, through the eyes of the apprentice to the most respected jade setter in Janloon. Pulo Oritono is in his mid-20s, full of both ideas and disappointments. He wanted to be a jade warrior, but didn’t have the required ability to wear and master the quantity of jade necessary for even the middling ranks of the discipline. But he has a paradoxically and usefully high tolerance for being around jade – even if he can’t control the use of it. It’s the perfect combination for someone to be a jade setter – which is emphatically NOT what Pulo wanted. But it’s turning out to be something he can be good at, and Isin Nakokun is an excellent master.

But Pulo is in his mid-20s, and still thinks he knows everything. He has all sorts of ideas for expanding the shop – among other things. This story is about Pulo learning just how much he REALLY doesn’t know.

The shop is emphatically neutral, belonging to neither the Mountain nor the No Peak clans. Which allows the shop to cater to discerning jade warriors on both sides of the clan divide that is already beginning to roil the city.

The trouble begins when the Mountain clan brings the ceremonial blade of its leader, Pillar Ayt Madashi, to Isin for repair. That sets off a chain reaction that tears the lives of Pulo, Isin, and Isin’s assistant Malla into pieces. The knife is stolen. Malla is accused and jailed for the crime during an investigation that seems to run into nothing but roadblocks. Isin disappears, and a desperate Pulo calls on the No Peak clan for help.

And uncovers a tragedy of blood and honor that can only be answered with blood.

Escape Rating A+: The Jade Setter of Janloon is an absolute chef’s kiss of a coda to the marvelous Green Bone Saga. One that paradoxically will give readers who already loved the epic a taste to start all over again in Jade City.

And if this is your first exposure to this rich, tasty reading treat, it’s more than meaty enough to serve as an appetizer to get new readers to devour the complete, three-course, utterly delicious meal. I meant series.

My metaphors are mixed because it feels like I’m still there, at a table at the Twice Lucky restaurant watching it all begin again. I just wish I didn’t have to leave.

 

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys FordDetroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy, vampires
Pages: 150
Published by Dreamspinner Press on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

For Javi Navarro, Detroit will become another blood-splattered city in his rearview mirror after he puts its dead back into the ground. Expecting an easy hunting job, Javi instead finds a kiss of ancient vampires on the hunt for a descendant of their long-dead creator.

Reclusive Ciarnan Mac Gerailt abandoned his family legacy of blood and death magic after it nearly destroyed him. Unfortunately for Ciarnan, the Motor City can only be saved if he resumes his dark arts and joins forces with Javi Navarro, the hunter who brought the vampire apocalypse—and hope for the future—straight to Ciarnan’s front door.

Previously published as "Legacy of Blood and Death" in the anthology Creature Feature 2

My Review:

Have you been wondering where urban fantasy went? I certainly have. Once upon a time, it was the hottest thing since, well, whatever metaphor seems appropriate for the 1980s or thereabouts, but then it kind of died off, sort of like the vampires that seemed to be the backbone of its antiheroes and tormented villains, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not that ongoing series didn’t continue, but new ones just didn’t emerge from the shadows.

So to speak. Ahem.

I love urban fantasy and missed it when it slunk back into those shadows. It was one of my go-to genres when I was in a reading slump. But it’s starting to feel like it’s back from the dead. Or the graveyard. Or wherever it’s been hiding for the last decade or so. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Holly Black’s Book of Night when it comes out next month. Because the heroine Charlie Hall is pretty much every hard luck and worse trouble kick ass heroine to ever stalk the pages of an urban fantasy. But I digress. Sort of.)

Because when I started reading Detroit Kiss, the first, second and third things I thought of were just how much it reminded me of the early Dresden Files books, to the point where I’m not sure whether Javi’s musings as to why so many magic-wielding heavy-hitters ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago. It felt like half explanation, half intercity rivalry and half homage to Harry Dresden’s stomping ground.

I realize that’s too many halves, but there are always too many somethings nasty in this kind of urban fantasy. In the case of Detroit Kiss, too many feral vampires. The bloodsuckers are definitely not the heroes of this piece. They’re the evil pests, to the point where the good guys call them “ticks” because they are mindless evil bloodsuckers.

So the tone of Detroit Kiss, with Javi Navarro working as a bounty hunter for the beleaguered Detroit Police Department, had the same feel as the early Dresden books, minus Harry’s somewhat leery male gaze. Plus, however, a slightly better love life – eventually – as Javi’s luck turns out to be better than Dresden’s frequently was. At least so far.

We’re introduced to this version of Detroit in decay when a construction crew attempting to revive the city yet again uncovers a “kiss” of vampires who have been trapped underground, gnawing on the bones of their makers and each other for a century. They’ve been stuck in the ruins of a speakeasy since Prohibition with nothing to drink except each other.

Until they eat the construction crew, that is.

But these ticks are fixated on the two magic users whose bones they’ve been picking clean all these years, so once they escape they go hunting for whoever is left of the bloodlines that made them.

And that’s where Ciarnan Mac Gerailt comes in, the only descendant of one of those mages within easy reach. Ciarnan is existing someplace between hiding out and living in an old theater he’s never bothered to refurbish in one of the many down-at-heels neighborhoods in this version of the city. He’s given up the death magic that is his family’s heritage and taken up growing vegetables and just trying to get himself, his wolf dog Elric and his fae familiar Shaddock through the day and the sometimes very long and dark nights.

Ciarnan looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back and took his friends, his apprentice and very nearly his life. He’s given up magic. Really, truly.

At least until Javi Navarro helps him put down one of the entirely too many ticks that has come after him in place of his several greats-grandfather. Javi wants Ciarnan to help gather up the ticks so they can pick the place and time and have a better chance at bringing them down.

And honestly, he just wants Ciarnan the minute he sees him – even though Ciarnan clocks him with a shovel the minute after.

But in order to help Javi, Ciarnan will have to look back into that abyss – and hope to heaven or hell that this time it doesn’t swallow him whole. While praying that the vampires don’t either.

Escape Rating A-: I have one and only one complaint about Detroit Kiss. It’s too damn short.

I mean that. Seriously. It’s too damn short and there aren’t any more. Rather like the author’s Dim Sum Asylum, which was another gem of urban fantasy that bordered just a bit on paranormal romance AND also had a fascinating world that seemed like there was oodles of backstory to explore, a riveting case to solve, a terrific pair of heroes and DAMN no sequel.

I loved the way that this almost-now/nearish future Detroit felt like an all too easy extension of where the city has been for the past decade or two (or maybe three), partially devastated and partly gentrifying and still trying to get back up on its feet in spite of all the forces trying to tear it down.

The magic system seems cool and interesting, and the whole idea of finding a buried speakeasy filled with rogue vamps was an absolutely chilling way to kick things off.

Ciarnan is one of the author’s signature wounded-but-trying heroes who do the right thing even if sometimes for the wrong reasons and are always one half-step away from backsliding into darkness.

The climactic scene is dark, deadly, dangerous AND squicky and heroic at the same time. I’d absolutely adore seeing where these guys and their world go next. I hope the author gets there someday because I’d be all in for it!