Review: Dragon Justice by Laura Anne Gilman

Dragon Justice is the fourth book in Laura Anne Gilman’s Paranormal Scene Investigations Series, after Hard Magic, Pack of Lies, and Tricks of the Trade. She’s been building this urban fantasy version of New York City and its world for quite a while, ever since the first book in her Retrievers series, Staying Dead. And what a world it is! If you love urban fantasy I dare to to read the words “Cosa Nostradamus” without your imagination opening up into a smile of wonder. Concept and pun in one single phrase.

Dragon Justice, being the fourth book in the PSI series, builds on everything that came before. (See my review of Tricks of the Trade for details about prior events in the series)

It helps a LOT to have read the other books in the series. That’s no hardship. This series, both these series, are awesome. But it makes it damn difficult to write a review as though this book stands alone.

Dragon Justice has the feeling of a middle book in the story arc. Each individual book in the Paranormal Scene Investigations Series uses a police-procedural-type framework — the PUPIs are investigators, after all. So there is a crime that needs to be investigated. But that’s not the biggest part of this particular story.

The big things are the forces moving in the background. Ian Stosser and Ben Venec are the two “Big Dogs” at PUPI, and they go off in different directions. Ian gives everyone a vacation so he can take care of some family business. Alone.

Ben goes to Philadelphia to work on a private security contract at a small museum. Ben turns out to be much smarter than Ian. He invites Bonnie Torres, one of the PUPs, to come to Philly. Whatever Ben’s original motives might have been (and yes, they were exactly what Bonnie is hoping they were) when a dead body turns up, the PUPIs start an investigation. The victim wasn’t Talented, but Talent seems to have been used to kill him.

While Ben and the team are working in Philly, Ian is in New York City dealing with problems of his own, and they are big ones. Two of the biggest; money and family. It takes a lot of capital to start up and investigative service like the PUPIs, and it requires a lot of specialized equipment. Expensive. The Cosa has some very unsavory characters in it, including loan sharks. Bloodthirsty ones who demand actual blood.

And then there are the long-standing problems that Ian has had with his sister Aden, problems that go way beyond sibling rivalry. Aden believes that only the Cosa Council should have the power to police and punish Council members who commit crimes. Ian knows the system is broken, that’s why he started the PUPIs in the first place. Ian believes in that old principle from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Aden thinks the Council is capable is watching over its members, and that no one else is fit to judge them, because the Council members are the most powerful Talent-users. Aden has forgotten the principle that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” She’s tried blackmail, she’s tried boycott, she’s tried a smear campaign. Nothing has stopped her brother. She resorts to finding people with even greater power than the Council, not thinking that anyone with that much power won’t stop Ian with just a warning.

If someone wants PUPI stopped so badly that they will kill for it, then something truly evil must be coming. Bonnie and Ben need even greater help to save themselves and their friends from what Bonnie’s sense of kenning sees in the future. But the price of enlisting the aid of Bonnie’s friend Madame, the dragon who watches over New York, is very, very high.

Sometimes the myths are true.

Escape Rating A: There is a LOT going on in this story, and it all matters. It also ties into the original Retrievers series, with cameos from not just Wren Valere, but also her partner Sergei Didier and the demon P.B. (Someone really needs to make a P.B. plushie!)

The depth of the world having already been built really tells. Things feel solid. The reader knows who Founder Ben is, what Bonnie means about needing to top up her current, or why all the PUPs need to restock on food as much as they do. Current uses real energy. The interactions between Council and Lonejack and Fatae are already well-established.

And Ian Stosser is an idiot. He built up this entire organization, and then he continues to handle too many things as if he has no backup, and no responsibilities to anyone other than himself. I know the character is that way for a reason, and I still want to reach in and shake some sense into him. Idiot.

There’s also some foreshadowing that old enemies from the earlier series are building for a comeback. This is not a good thing for Bonnie or her world, however excellent for the story. But I bet things are going to get darker before they get lighter again. I can’t wait for the next book.

Soon, please?


What’s On My (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand? AKA The Sunday Post 7-15-12

It’s going to be a very busy week here at Reading Reality. And I’m not just talking about the blog.

For those of you in the library world, I’m going to do one totally shameless plug. I’m speaking at the ALA Virtual Conference on Wednesday, July 18. My topic is one that is near and dear to my geeky little heart. Of course I’m referring to ebooks. “Beyond the Bestseller List: Filling Patron Demand for Great eBooks Without the ‘Big 6 Publishers'”.

Back to the blog. I have two tours scheduled this week.

Tuesday, Donna Del Oro will be visiting, and guest posting, to talk about her very cool paranormal romance/romantic suspense novel, The Delphi Bloodline. I’ll also have a review. A psychic female meets her match when a family friend becomes her guardian. Then the skeptical FBI wants to use her as bait in a plan that nearly turns deadly. Oh, and the Pope is involved. Lots of surprises in this one.

And on Thursday, Jeffe Kennedy stops by to answer a few questions about Rogue’s Pawn, the first book in her new urban fantasy/paranormal romance series, Covenant of Thorns. Of course, I’ll also have a review of this twisty new book, where a woman from our world crosses into fae.

Looking ahead to next week, there are a few books on the radar that I’m really looking forward to diving into.

I’ll be reviewing The Virgin Huntress, the second book in Victoria Vane’s Devil DeVere series over at Book Lovers Inc. on July 27. The first book, A Wild Night’s Bride, was an absolute hoot, a glorious romp. (BLI review here, Reading Reality here) If you want to laugh along with your sexy romance, give AWNB a read. I’m hoping The Virgin Huntress is even more delicious fun.

Series set up expectations. That true for Laura Anne Gilman’s Dragon Justice, the next book in her Paranormal Scene Investigations Series book. The publication date is July 24. Again, I enjoyed the rest of the series (Hard Magic, Pack of Lies, Tricks of the Trade (Tricks reviewed here). I loved Gilman’s Retrievers series. I’m seriously looking forward to the night I’m going to spend reading Dragon Justice. Enough said.

Last but definitely not least. I’m in the next upcoming BlogHer Book Clubs. Those bring interesting books that I might not otherwise read. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty starts next week. That book I did want to read. Not just because the book is a hot pick on a whole lot of lists, but because the Roaring 20s are so fascinating.

The Small Blogs Big Giveaways Blog Hop will be running all this week here and and on all of the participating blogs. So don’t forget to pop on over to the entry post and get your name into the hopper for all of the prizes. There are gift cards, books and ebooks. One riffle down the rafflecopter gets you entered into all the hop stops.

That’s enough for one week (or two weeks!) on this blog. Whew! What’s happening at your place?

Tricks of the Trade

I remember the smile spreading across my face the first time I read Cosa Nostradamus in Laura Anne Gilman’s Staying Dead. The inside joke is of the type that is “funny always”, because I’m still smiling every time I see it in the offshoot series, Paranormal Scene Investigations. The Cosa Nostradamus is never exactly translated, but I can make an educated guess. If the Cosa Nostra of Mafia fame is “Our Thing” then Cosa Nostradamus is “magic thing” or “magic family”. Considering the way that the Cosa sometimes acts in Gilman’s world, “magic Mafia” might be a valid interpretation.

Tricks of the Trade is Gilman’s third book in her Paranormal Scene Investigations series. This is an offshoot of her Retrievers series, and it is set in the same urban fantasy version of our world as that series. In fact, Wren Valere, the Retriever, appears very, very briefly in Tricks, and the events of the Retrievers series serve as background for the PSI series.

Bonita Torres is the lead point-of-view character in Tricks of the Trade. In Hard Magic, the first book in the series, we were introduced to Bonnie and the rest of the PUPIs. PUPI stands for Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigators. And yes, they do get called “puppies”. And pups.  Which makes their bosses, Ian Stosser and Ben Venec the “Big Dogs”. The PUPIs are all Talent, in other words, current users, in their 20s, with a special skill. Bonnie’s skill is detailed recall. It’s probable that all the PUPIs also have an incident in their past where the Cosa‘s lack of law enforcement failed them in some way. Bonnie’s father was murdered, and there was no system in place for evidence to be gathered and presented to a justice system. PUPI was created to be that unprejudiced evidence gathering organization.

The Cosa Nostradamus has three branches; Council, Lonejack and Fatae. Council are the high-muckety-mucks, with power, influence and organization. Lonejacks are exactly what they sound like, they each work alone, and they rather aggressively want to be left alone. Fatae are the non-humans; fauns, nymphs, dryads, minotaurs, demons, and everything in-between. Some of them can pass as human, some can’t, not even in New York City.

By the time Tricks of the Trade occurs, PUPI has been in business in NYC for a year. They are starting to get some regular clients, at least enough to pay the bills. The Mage Councils are starting to come to PUPI to solve cases for them, at least when things go really, really bad, and they have nothing left to lose. The Councils still believe that Council should solve Council problems, but it just isn’t working for them anymore. The Lonejacks are beginning to recognize that PUPI might be what they say they are, in service of the facts and nothing more, nothing less.

PUPI serves order. There is a Fatae who directly opposes this. There are always Tricksters in every myth system. Loki, Raven, Coyote, Anansi, and Hermes are all Trickster avatars. There is a Fatae known as “The Roblin” who comes to New York City to foment chaos. It’s hard for him at first. New York City is naturally chaotic, people mostly cope. Then he focuses on the PUPIs specifically, and all hell breaks loose. Not just with the cases they are working on, but with their lives.

Escape Rating A-: I was glad to have an excuse to re-visit Gilman’s world again. In spite of some of the bad stuff going down, this is a version of alternate history I wouldn’t mind living in, particularly if I were Talented. The idea that Ben Franklin was a mage is one I can’t get out of my head–in a really good way.

The characters are what make this series interesting. Each of the major characters is definitely an individual, and it’s someone I’d like to meet. Gilman conveys the joys and frustrations of team-building so well, how everyone pulls together and finds a fit in this new “thing” they all get consumed by, that joy you experience when you find a job that gives you purpose and not just a paycheck–even when it eats your life.

Hard Magic and Pack of Lies maintained a tight focus on Bonnie’s point-of-view. Not first-person-singular, but seeing the world from her perspective. It worked very well. Tricks of the Trade switched focus between Bonnie and Venec. There were reasons in the story for this, but the diffusion of focus lost something. I think it worked better when we stuck to Bonnie’s POV.

I want the next book now! I was not ready to leave this world when I finished Tricks of the Trade. So while I was glad I piled the first three books up and was able to have a two-day binge, I’m kind of sorry that the next book, Dragon Justice, won’t be available until Spring 2012.

And if you like urban fantasy and haven’t read the Retrievers series yet, give yourself a Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice present. Get Staying Dead and start now. The Cosa Nostradamus is waiting for you.

Good cops, strange beats

In an urban fantasy, when the detective needs to round up the “usual suspects”, those suspects can be pretty unusual. That’s actually part of the fun, seeing how close the author can hew to the traditional line of the mystery or police procedural formula and still bite the reader with that touch of the weird.

In any urban fantasy, there is a touch of alternate reality going on. History as we know it has gone down a different leg of the trousers of time (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and magic works in the here and now. In urban fantasy, it’s our world, our history, our pretty much everything, except there’s this one big change–magic and magical creatures co-habit with science.  How that happened changes from one author to the next.

A lot of authors work from the theory that magic has always existed but that magic practitioners have tried to hide themselves. Remember the Salem Witch Trials? If magic does exist, that era of real history would be enough to keep any real witch (or any other unusual being, for that matter) from revealing themselves for several generations.

In Laura Anne Gilman‘s alternate New York, her world has always contained magic. Magic is current, that is, electricity. Ben Franklin wasn’t out there with that kite because he was conducting a science experiment, oh no. He was trying to control the lightning because in Gilman’s version of history, Franklin was a mage! But Gilman’s modern-day protagonist, Wren Valere, has a slightly more profitable use for her magic–she is a retrieval agent. She finds things that are lost, or missing, or stolen–and retrieves them–even if they are protected by magic. But Wren’s life is complicated by too many things: her changing relationship with her business partner, her friendship with the demon P.B., and that fact that Wren is a Lonejack, a Talent who works alone, and now the organization that keeps tabs on Talents, the Cosa, short for Cosa Nostradamus, suddenly wants to control her. The first book in Gilman’s Retrievers series is Staying Dead. Wren’s journey is worth following.

In P.N. Elrod‘s Vampire Files series, the detective is a vampire, although he keeps it a secret from everyone except his partner. Jack Fleming’s first case is to find out who turned him. Bloodlist has all the elements of a 1930’s noir detective novel except that the detective is a vampire. The moral dilemma of a vampire dealing with, and later in the series, becoming, a Chicago mobster in the 1930’s is absolutely priceless.

But my current favorite for mind-bending urban fantasy is DD Barant‘s Bloodhound Files series. So far, it’s Dying Bites, Death Blows, and Killing Rocks. The title puns are pretty typical of the gallows humor. Jace Valchek is a FBI profiler who specializes in serial killers, the really whacked-out kind. Her job is exciting enough in the first place. Then she gets whisked away to an parallel universe by the their national security administration because in their version of reality, only humans commit serial crimes, and, humans are less than 1% of the population. So what are the rest? Vampires, werewolves, golems, and pretty much every other supernatural creature that Jace only knows of in legends. But someone is murdering them, and Jace is the one expert they located who could possibly figure this out.

So Jace is stuck. Unless she finds their serial killer, she can’t go home. She might find another magic practitioner to send her to her world, but only they know exactly when they took her from. Her best chance of going back to find her old life reasonably intact is to help. And profiling serial killers is what she does.

What I enjoy about Jace’s story is her point of view. The mystery she solves in each book is fun, but I like being in her head. Her story is a “fish out of water” tale. The world she has been taken too is “almost” like hers, like ours, but not quite. She starts to adapt, and then something brings her up short. Her partner is a golem, named Charlie of all things. Charlie is a snappy dresser, and he likes to dance! But he’s made of rock. When he gets wounded, he needs a patch kit, not a medic. Her new boss is a vampire who may look like an 18-year-old surfer dude, but is actually hundreds of years old. In every encounter with the bad guys, she is reminded that she is part of an endangered species. Humans are called O.R.–that’s short for “Original Recipe”, and the name is derived from KFC. Like Jace, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at that revelation. See what you think.

If you just want a sample of some weird detecting? There is an urban fantasy anthology titled, you guessed it, Unusual Suspects.