The Neon Court

Matthew Swift is the epitome of the urban sorcerer. Proof: he takes the bus. But there are ways he's not your usual sorcerer, the least of which being that he serves as the Midnight Mayor of London. He also shares a body with the blue electric angels. And he's got a conscience.

But being the Midnight Mayor is not all roses and bon-bons. Sure he's got a fleet of aldermen to do his bidding...assuming they'd listen to him (it's hard to take a guy seriously when he wears grubby t-shirts). And sure he's powerful enough to have defeated the destroyer of cities in THE MIDNIGHT MAYOR. But now in THE NEON COURT, the underground Tribe and the fae Neon Court have declared war over a murder—with London as the battleground—unless Swift delivers the chosen one.

THE NEON COURT starts off chaotic, like the first two in the series, jumping right into the action. We're swiftly caught up in Swift's dilemma: Oda, the vigilante from the previous novels, has somehow magically summoned Swift into a burning building. He arrives to find Oda's blood all over the floor and a gaping hole in her heart. But what does Oda's rather fatal condition (strangely enough, she's not dead yet) and the war have to do with each other? Well, it takes the entire novel to figure it out.

If you enjoyed A MADNESS OF ANGELS and THE MIDNIGHT MAYOR, then THE NEON COURT is more of the same awesomeness. You could read NEON without having read the previous two, but there will be a few confusing spots as a result. Kate Griffin has kept a consistent momentum and voice across the series, even if the plots are somewhat similar: everyone in London is gonna die unless Swift saves them. And obviously he's the only one who can do it.

Swift is a complicated character. He's easy enough to like, and his first-person PoV is engaging. Well, there is, however, the odd use of 'we', when referring to himself and the angels that inhabit his body—and therein stems the complications of personality. The electric blue angels are pure energy, magical beings without thought of the future, who take action when they see the need. But they're forever bound to a mortal body who must deal with the consequences of those actions. It makes for an interesting dynamic. Fortunately, Swift isn't a wimp or else the angels would have killed him long ago from sheer negligence. He's clever and creative, as he moves around London, trying to help Oda, and stop the war between the Neon Court and the Tribe. Poor guy wants to do the right thing, but sometimes it's just impossible.

As a result of the events at the end of THE MIDNIGHT MAYOR, Swift now finds himself with an apprentice: Penny. One can't let a powerful sorceress loose on the city without proper training first. Like Swift, she's no wimp, but then again she's new to this whole magic business, and sees things for the first time that are mighty troubling. Their interactions are entertaining; the dialogue gets silly at times, but on the whole it's clever and snappy. Oda, whom we knew little about in previous novels other than she's a psycho, magic-hating, gun-toting, religious zealot, gets more back story. It's presented in clunky way, but is still important to the story.

Griffin must have decided to have a little fun with this plot, so she took the 'chosen one' trope and turned it on its head. What does it mean to be 'chosen'? Who does the choosing? She also explores themes of relationships—but not the romantic kind, her books don't have the sexuality found in the majority of urban fantasy. Here, it's the relationships between siblings, co-workers, the people you hardly know but who seem to affect you, nevertheless, and how these relationships shape events.

One of the best things about this series is the urban magic, how it's called up by the routines of life and environment that is the city. Griffin's prose brings out the details: the smells, the sights, the sounds that makes the city hum with the magic energy that people like Swift can tap. The prose will catch some readers off guard, even those who like reading urban fantasy, because it's less straightforward. The pace is consistent and quick, but is still slowed down by the more descriptive prose. These things didn't bother me, and are ultimately rewarding.

By the time I got to the climax, I was all wrung out. Swift seems like he's going to fall apart at any moment. I have no idea how he's going to possibly survive. Every imaginably horrible thing has happened. And it all leads up to a...climax that falls a tad short. It does all make sense, and if I'm being honest it did make me tear up, but it didn't quite match the rest of the story. It works. Mostly. But in THE NEON COURT it's the journey more than the destination.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Penny the wise-cracking apprentice has a serious potty mouth.
Violence: Yep. Poor Swift gets beat up a lot. There are quite a few fights and graphic imagery. The body count gets uncomfortably high.
Sex: Not even the least whiff of romance.

Black Blade Blues

Sarah Beuhall is pretty sure she needs therapy. Her personal demons of doubt and self-identity keep her from being happy with her life, even though at first it appears to be going well. She's got a job she loves (blacksmithing; props for a local B movie director), beautiful girlfriend who loves her (Katie), and a chosen family in her Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) reenactor friends--so why does everything still seem to go wrong?

But none of those problems are nearly as bad as the ones that revolve around her ownership of a black-bladed sword: these more immediate problems involve dwarves, Old Norse gods, and dragons. BLACK BLADE BLUES (no, I can't believe he named it that, either) by J.A. Pitts is your typical urban fantasy novel with some gettin-together by the main characters, the heroine learning that magic really exists, and swords--don't forget the swords.

The story takes places in modern-day Seattle, and even though Sarah likes fighting in skirmishes at the occasional Ren Fair, she's never believed that magic really exists. That is, until a movie extra claims he's a dwarf and that the black-bladed sword Sarah bought at an auction is magic. Then everything changes.

BLACK BLADE BLUES starts off slow. This is an urban fantasy novel, and UF is generally shorter, so a writer can't dilly dally with set-up and has got to start out at a dead run. He doesn't. Pitts probably thinks that the short chapters would solve the pace problems and choppy flow. They don't. Neither can they successfully hide awkward progression. You don't even really know what the "story" is until well past page 100.

Sarah is the first-person PoV, but we occasionally see third-person via Katie, or a dragon (in human form) and a witch who consider the Northwest their territory, the people in it as chattel. Sometimes these switches help to advance plot and they're often more interesting than Sarah's part of the story; Katie's PoV scenes are used to advance the romance. However, it's Sarah's voice that will hook readers long before the plot, or before even liking her as a protagonist: it's full of attitude, sarcasm, and opinions. But readers will have a hard time liking Sarah since she spends so much time questioning Katie's attraction to her, she's got a dismal self body image, and she ruminates on an unpleasant childhood with a religious nut father--all of this was ham-handed and gloomy. On the plus side, while the F/F protagonist's relationship is an important part of the story, it doesn't feel like it's there for diversity's sake, and was for the most part believable.

Pitts' prose does get cliché. The conversations are vapid. The storytelling style is engaging and easy enough to read, but the action scenes nothing to get too excited about. The climax is a SCAdian dream come true, and becomes over-the-top with trolls, dragons, and witches fighting reenactors on their horses and using homemade swords and mail. If you're looking for nerdy fun, then great, this is for you. Personally I thought it was a little silly.

What we end up with is a mixed bag, and a result I'm not really certain who the target audience is. Lesbian blacksmith protagonist who's uncomfortable with her sexual orientation, and becomes an important player in the fight against evil. Dragons and witches vying for control over humans, but we don't really understand why or how. SCAdian reenactors who on the outside seem really cool, but not much time is spent in that world other than the convenience of Sarah having friends who can call up an army to fight trolls. So, yeah, I'm going to have to say skip this one.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: An infrequent smattering of various profanity and crude slang
Violence: Yes, the climax chapters get brutal, but the action could have been better done
Sex: Lots of innuendo, references same-sex encounters with some detail; however, there are no graphic 'on screen' scenes

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Every once in a while I come across a book, or series of books, that totally yanks the carpet out from under me. I don’t expect more than the ordinary when I pick ‘em up (other than, perhaps, noticing the amazing cover art). I plop myself down in a chair, open the thing up, and quite simply just get to it. Then it reaches out, smashes me in the face with its awesomeness, and says, “You love me!” Leaving me with naught to do but obligingly respond, “Yes. Yes I do.”

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN is the second of three planned Burton and Swinburne novels written by Mark Hodder and, after reading its predecessor, was every bit the book that I had hoped it would be. If any of you missed the announcement, Mark Hodder recently won the 2011 Phillip K. Dick award for THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING-HEELED JACK. Awesome that he won it? Yes. Even if I did have a few problems with the book, I still think this guy deserves the praise. So if there are any doubts niggling your brain as to the possibility of goodness in this second book, let me disabuse you of them forthwith.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is dead.

Well, okay, not really. He’s actually just trying to catch a break and get back to finding the source of the Nile, which, if you remember from the first novel, was one of his driving passions prior to SPRING-HEELED JACK. It isn’t long before he comes across the Clockwork Man of the title and things get moving. Immediately, Burton is entrenched in mystery and danger, and we very soon start to see the development of the much larger story of interest for the trilogy: discovery of the Eyes of Naga, several black stones of interest that came from a meteorite and have provided some very mystical powers to people, indeed. His search takes us down into the city sewers, out into the country, searching through lost legends, and quite literally down into the belly of a beast. Frankenstein-like monsters, ghosts, mind-control and more warp the very fabric of the pages. Nothing short of a barrel of fun.

This book had so many high points. Hodder’s prose is again super easy to read. When combined with the rapid evolution of the story, the pacing of the book stayed fast and furious. One of the things I was really happy to see was the development of Swinburne as a character. My impression of him from the first novel was less than stellar. He came across as somewhat of a peculiar ne’er do well with a penchant for mild philosophy. This time through, he not only adds to the plot but makes for a regular source of humor that had me in stitches more than a few times. Aside from this, Burton continues to get better, and I was absolutely enthralled by his character as he put the pieces of the various puzzles together.

Hodder is also very concerned in this book with how the world has changed as a result of the events in SPRING-HEELED JACK. The world is moving on from its divergence point, and the countries of Europe specifically are evolving at a frenetic pace. War is coming to Europe and its nations, only this time it’s powered by the Eugenecists and their newly-mangled scientific fare. All of the Eugencist-created cornucopia from the first book is here again, plus more. Giant swans that pull massive kite-conveyances through the air. Loads more insult-laden parakeet messengers. (Thank you!) Garbage eating crabs that incinerate trash left upon city streets. Massive millipedes that have been slaughtered, scooped out, and turned into cheap structures for city buses. Just wow. And, of course, there are the Clockwork Men. Yes, you noticed. There's more than one. :) Oh. And book three is set up absolutely perfectly, people. Can you believe that? A second book that not only preps for the next in the series but has a complete story as well? Seriously. How often do we see that?

There were only a few minor blips for me. The first is something that I see in nearly every mystery novel, so it’s somewhat forgivable. It’s the portrayal of a scene where the main character (Burton, in this case) finally knows what's going on and deliberately withholds the information from us. (As in, "Burton explained to everyone in the room what was going on. Then he laid out his plans to them.") Annoying, true, but given the quick pace of the novel it wasn’t very long before I found out what was happening anyhow, and so I can only complain so much about this. A second point is that the Clockwork Man of the title really only sets off the initial search, and though he was involved in the events that eventually played out (to great effect, I might add) he was never pivotal to the mystery. So, although I liked the title, based on the Clockwork Man’s involvement in the story, I probably would have changed it. Okay, now I’m quibbling. Can you tell that I just loved this book? I’m complaining about the title for crying out loud! Lol.

On the whole, this series is completely reminding me of the great Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, I think that if someone doesn't pick this series up and make a few movies out of it, it'll be an entirely massive disservice to the entire world. The books would lend themselves perfectly to that medium, paralleling the Sherlock Holmes movies, which I loved, that have recently been released. In a movie-world full of copy cats I'm surprised that someone hasn't already done a Sherlock Holmes movie mock-up. If someone picks this one up, and does it right by staying true to the story, they could easily come out on top.

Can't wait for the next!

Recommended age: 16 plus
Language: Mostly mild, PG-13 worthy
Violence: Fairly tame for the most part, but quite graphic in a few sections toward the end.
Sex: A scene of mild S&M that was hilarious but still S&M worthy

Still the closest thing I can find to a Mark Hodder Website


How do you end a series? We're sure this is a question every author asks at some point during a career. We've read quite a few series from start to finish, and have decided that writing that satisfying ending and conclusion must be the hardest thing to do. Why? We chalk it up to expectations. This can be crippling to the final book in a series, especially when the series has been SO good.

You all know what fans we are of James Barclay's work. From the moment we opened DAWNTHIEF, we were hooked. He improved as a writer and storyteller from novel to novel, and the stories got progressively more awesome. Simply put, he's one of our favorite authors. Period. DEMONSTORM marks the "end" of the Raven. We realize that there is still another novel, but keep in mind that RAVENSOUL is more of a bonus tale. DEMONSTORM is the true end. With as much as we enjoy Barclay's work, we were worried that the final novel wouldn't live up to our unfairly high expectations.

OK, we've led you on enough. Plus you probably already read the tag we attached to this review which reads "Books We Love". It really is as simple as that. We loved this book. We loved it more than any of the previous Raven novels.

What made DEMONSTORM so satisfying and awesome? The same thing that captured us from the very beginning of DAWNTHIEF: the characters. The truth of the matter is that a series cannot survive the test of time and the readers' patience if the characters don't grab you. Through the Raven novels we have become ridiculously attached to the characters of the world. We have been through so much with them that we identify with them. This novel is really the Raven's last ride, and the immediacy of that statement is felt right from the beginning of the novel.

Balaia is screwed. Yeah, that's the short version of the whole novel. Xetesk, in their greed and arrogance, opened a rift between the world of Balaia and the Demon dimension making that whole dragon problem from NOONSHADE seem like Hello Kitty's Island Adventure. Demons flood Balaia and essentially enslave everyone. It's a grim beginning to a grim tale. There isn't a lot of humor in this novel because there isn't room for it. Throughout it all, the Raven have but themselves into exile. They are hunted by humans. Coveted by demons. They feel betrayed by the world they have saved over and over again.

And yet they go back to save it again. It's who they are.

In most novels, the final third of the book is the climax. In DEMONSTORM, the entire novel is the climax. It is one, big moving war. And in war, there are casualties. Barclay has never been shy about killing off characters. This book is no different. The carnage in DEMONSTORM is steep. The cost of fighting these demons is shocking. Our biggest worry, honestly, was that Barclay would take the easy way out. Cheat. Just so you know, he didn't. We cried.

It is our duty to tell you of any shortcomings. The only ones of note were the sudden time jump early in the novel--it just kinda happened with no real warning. A bit confusing. The only other bit was during the final confrontation. We wish it had been a bit more from Erienne's PoV. Personally we feel it would have made the already insanely awesome ending absolutely perfect. But that's just an opinion, and none of this is actually harmful to the immense enjoyment of the novel.

Us readers here in the US have been spoiled. Look how quickly we have been getting Barclay's novels. A decade's worth of material has been brought to us in two years. We aren't quite sure what else we can tell you other than, "Go get his books NOW!"

DEMONSTORM is an emotional and thrilling ending to the Raven. It will make you laugh a little, and maybe even cry a lot. It is Barclay's best Raven novel by far, and one of our favorite books of the year.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Some, and strong when it gets used.
Violence: Please. There is more violence in this novel than perhaps his last two or three combined.
Sex: Mentioned, but not shown at all.

James Barclay's Website:

The Company Man

There is a scene in the show Deadwood that has stuck with us for years. A preacher has a seizure that ravages his brain. He can't do anything about it. He can't see straight. Can't hardly walk or talk. It gets to the point where he can't do anything. Enter Al Swearengen, the owner of a whorehouse, and an extremely unlikable fellow. It is one of the few moments in the show where Swearengen's exterior is stripped away and we are left seeing the anguish he feels at the preacher's condition. In a heart-breaking scene, Swearengen does what no one else is willing to do.

Why does that scene stick with us years after watching that episode? Because it was set up perfectly in character and setting. In Robert Jackson Bennett's THE COMPANY MAN, there was a scene near the end of the novel reminiscent of that Deadwood scene. It was at that clinching moment that the novel became truly an excellent and incredible read. It was at that moment that we realized just how well Bennett had pulled everything together.

THE COMPANY MAN is an alternate historical Science Fiction novel that takes place in 1919 in Evesdon, Washington. The McNaughton Corporation has grown from nothing into the worlds biggest and most important company. Their inventions have revolutionized everything. The novel, however, begins at a much simpler and basic level. A murder. The story follows three PoVs as they sift through the mystery of the murder, and what it actually means. The main character of the story is Cyril Hayes. He works for McNaughton as a security specialist. He also has an ability that borders on being psychic (an awesome ability that is strengthened by prolonged exposure and proximity to an individual). He is contacted by a Police Officer Donald Garvey to help figure out the details behind the murder. Samantha Fairbanks is also an employee of McNaughton whose job is to keep an eye on the erratic Hayes.

Bennett somehow makes each character extremely human, and intensely likable. It did take us a bit to warm up to the Samantha character, but by the end she was fantastic. Both Hayes and Garvey were awesome from start to finish, the former due to his ability and the latter due to his sense of honor.

While the characters were great, for us it was truly the setting that captivated us. Bennett does such an incredible job selling the setting of a super-advanced city that is also falling apart. From the stream-lined, impeccably clean interior of McNaughton to the varied types of slums of the sprawling city of Evesdon, it was utterly fascinating. There would be pages of description at a time, something that usually is a big turn-off for us. But Bennett's ability to perfectly relate the visual oddities of the city won us over within just a few pages.

This is neither a positive nor a negative, but due to the nature of the slow build-up mystery, and the high amounts of description, the novel was slowly paced. We know a few people would probably put it down due solely to this pacing. Don't be put off by it. Bennett writes incredibly well...honestly we are a tad jealous of his skill.

If there was one problem we had, it was with the ending. It's not that we didn't like the turn of events, or that we found it unforeshadowed (is that even a word? Regardless, the ending was foreshadowed fairly early on). It was all set up just fine. The problem is that the ending's tone seems a tad at odds with the rest of the book. The whole novel proceeds like a losing cause or a last-stand, yet the ending doesn't quite match that. It also seems like Bennett tried a bit too hard to have an overly mystical, thought provoking end. It wasn't bad, it just seemed a bit off.

Those small bothers aside, this was one of the most surprising books we have read in a long time. We attribute the majority of it to Bennett's skill with the written word. There was an awesome story here, with solid characters and some fabulous ideas...but it is Bennett's ability to sell it to the readers that really shines. The next novel Bennett puts out will be a day-one purchase for us. This is one author whose growth and career we are excited to follow.

Recommended Age:
Language: Lots
Violence: A few scenes that are just brutal. Again though, Bennett has a way of making them read sooooooo well
Sex: Talked about very frankly. We never actually get full details, which is nice, but it gets awful close to the line. There is also some discussion about a guy who does some pretty terrible things.

Check out Bennett's blog:

The Soul Mirror

Magic is not what it used to be. Now it's less potent. It's less reliable. Fewer people can use it. As a result science has gained popularity and the people of Sabria are experiencing a Renaissance.

But the Aspirant wants to change all that—and he will resort to murder to get what he wants.

The story began in Carol Berg's THE SPIRIT LENS, a fantasy whodunit told from the viewpoint of Portier, cousin to the king, and charged with finding the source of a failed assassination plot. It unravels into a mystery beyond a simple murder attempt and into full-blown conspiracy, with the king's bosom friend Michael de Vernase as the suspected instigator.

In the sequel, THE SOUL MIRROR, it's four years later and the plot thickens. The PoV switches to Anne de Vernase, the 22-year-old daughter of the suspected traitor, who much must move to Merona and the queen's court because her father's lands are to be given to another. Add to that her brother's imprisonment, a mother gone insane, her sister dead from spellwork gone awry (or is the cause more sinister...?), and now at court they want to marry her off. Anne can't believe her life could get any worse—except that it's the hated Portier, the very man who named her father as traitor, who brings her to Merona and watches over her every step.

At first, like everyone else, Anne believes her father is the Aspirant. But as she fumbles her way through the queen's court while the king is away, she gathers proof that perhaps her father is innocent. However, that begs the question: who is the Aspirant and what is he trying to accomplish? Is it the despicable sorcerer Dante, who performs necromancy on the queen's behalf? Is it the arrogant headmaster of the Collegia Magica? She may have to turn to the sycophantic Portier for help, afterall, in order to clear her father's good name.

The books are at heart mysteries, so as a result the plot and set-up are patterned after that genre. Berg blends magic into the mystery: How does the magic work? Why has it changed since the Blood Wars? What of this 'new' magic that threatens the very laws of nature? Why is the Aspirant using illegal blood magic to fuel his work? While some questions are answered in THE SPIRIT LENS (or so we think...), others continue into THE SOUL MIRROR, building on what has gone before, unraveling layer by layer the conspiracy in fascinating detail.

Anne is rational and intelligent, but lacks the refinements that would make her comfortable at court—even if her family had still been in the king's good graces. But she's still the goddaughter to the king with a dowry of her own, and so is brought to court to be a maid of honor for the queen. She's determined, and despite her introverted nature, is willing to do difficult things in order to see her plans through. Despite Anne being a much different voice from Portier's in the first book, the tone is consistent and pitch perfect for the story. The intelligently formal prose adds flavor to the era, is consistent across the books, and makes for lovely reading, reminiscent of Dickens or Austen.

Portier, Dante, and the queen's brother Illario all continue to be principle characters, continuing their roles from THE SPIRIT LENS. As the PoV character of the first book, Portier was a little difficult to figure for most of the book, but I enjoyed seeing him, as well as others, from Anne's viewpoint in THE SOUL MIRROR, which only made them more layered. Beyond these, there is a large and varied cast, from maidservant to the king himself. Sometimes all the names and places get confusing, there's a lot to remember. Fortunately, the characters are interesting enough to move the story along despite the bumps along the way.

The pace is steady and deliberate. While there are important events that happen, there is a lot of thinking going on as Anne attempts to unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance and the Aspirant's nefarious plans. Having all these details and intrigues to sort out takes time and may bore readers who prefer faster-paced excitement. Anne's narrative also suffers from the occasional leap in logic as she makes connections that I couldn't follow, but were necessary to the plot. Fortunately, all the information Anne gathers leads her to the solution and the exciting climax. But I don't dare spoil it for you. See if you can figure it out for yourself.

Can you read THE SOUL MIRROR without having read THE SPIRIT LENS? Probably not. You'll lose your way with the story and names, and the plot won't have the same impact. Should you bother reading the first in order to read the second? As well as prepare for the third, THE DAEMON PRISM coming out in 2012? Absolutely.

Recommended Age: 16+ more for reading level than content
Language: None
Violence: Although infrequent, it can be graphic
Sex: Referenced only

The Sorcerer's House

Just saying the name "Gene Wolfe" is enough to evoke contemplations of Hugo Award votes, so we figured we should give his novel from last year, THE SORCERER'S HOUSE a read. It didn't end up nominated, but we are nevertheless glad we picked this one up. Wolfe has the ability to write the absolute best, or the completely mediocre. Thankfully THE SORCERER'S HOUSE is one of those novels that instantly grabs you, and remains weird and entertaining from start to finish.

Baxter Dunn is a recently released ex-con who was incarcerated for embezzlement. He arrives in a small Midwest town and discovers that and old and mysterious house has been deeded to him by an unknown individual. To go into much more detail would completely ruin the novel for you, but it is safe to comment on how wild, weird and imaginative the novel progresses.

THE SORCERER'S HOUSE is told through a series of letters, most of which are from Bax to his twin brother. However we also get letters to and from a fellow convict of Bax's acquaintance, a psychic, Bax's sister in-law, and a few others. We absolutely loved the narration style of the novel with Bax cluing us in on the curiosities of his new life and strange residence. In a way, it reminds us of Christopher Priest's THE PRESTIGE--perhaps on of our favorite novels EVER. Wolfe's smooth and elegant prose (where appropriate) lends perfectly to the story Bax is telling through his letters. It adds instant credibility and makes Bax immediately sympathetic.

And that is precisely when Wolfe begins screwing with the reader's mind.

There comes a point where you begin to wonder just how pure Bax's motives are, and just how reliable of a narrator he really is. Keep in mind, Bax is a superbly educated man, and he turns out to be quite the clever man. It is these doubts permeating the latter half of the novel that make it SO good.

Now it isn't perfect. Indeed the ending of THE SORCERER'S HOUSE is the novel's biggest flaw and strength. The novel flows along steadily throughout the first 90% of the story only to abruptly end within just a few pages. While the final bit is incredibly thought-provoking, we felt it needed another 50 pages of material to really knock it out of the park. To continue the baseball analogy, right now (due mostly to the sudden ending) THE SORCERER'S HOUSE is like a double off the outfield wall, or even triple into the gap. It's SO CLOSE to being a home run that it kills us.

This book should be on your list. Read it. Enjoy it. Fans of Wolfe's previous work will likely love it, as will fans of THE PRESTIGE.

Recommended Age: 15 and up
Language: Not a ton, but can be strong when it occasionally pops up.
Violence: Very little.
Sex: Bax has a couple of relationships in the novel, but none of it goes into lurid details. Bax is ever the gentleman.

Black Halo

Sophomore novel. You know the term. And if you don't, then here. Hmm. That didn't work very well. Did anyone else know there wasn't a wiki for the term "Sophomore Novel"? Who'd have thought? Now I have the urge to go write one. Perhaps I will. Oh look. There's a wiki for haiku. How about a haiku on sophomore novels:

Great debut, I say,
but then this lackluster. Why?
It is the way. [[sigh]]

If any of you missed Sam Sykes's spectacular debut, TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, you should really go read it. Loads of fun. I loved it. BLACK HALO is the second novel of the Aeon's Gate, and after that first one I was seriously interested in seeing what Sykes was going to do next. TOME OF THE UNDERGATES could have been the climax to an entire series and readers probably would have been good with it. Action. Packed. But there was this pretty large issue that the whole thing happened on a boat. Thus, when BLACK HALO didn't start on a boat, I was ready to go.

Lenk and his five followers, after stealing the illustrious Tome of the Undergates, have crash landed on an island. Well, a massive sea serpent might have had something to do with it. But they're there. On the island, that is. And apparently it's deserted. They're all pretty sick of each other though, and after that last book who can blame them? They weren't exactly the most happy-go-lucky bunch of folk to begin with. Lenk's having some problems with these voices in his head. They just won't shut up. They've been bothering him for a while now, telling him to kill everyone or to bail on them because they're all going to betray him eventually anyway, and they've gotten considerably worse since he took a looksie at the pages in the Tome. Kataria is struggling more with the whole lifestyle choice she's made. She's supposed to kill all humans, and Lenk is, after all, a human. Soon she starts to hear the voice of another Shict though, and is fighting against all her thoughts and emotions. Gariath has kind of gone off the deep end. Wandering away from everyone else, he starts to talk to another dragonman that apparently died a long time ago, but for some reason is still on this island and has shown up to fill him in on a few choice details about the place.

And honestly, it wasn't long before I had to ask the question: Does anyone else feel like they're on the island from Lost? I kind of threw my hands up though when Lenk follows the stream to the cave where bad things happened a long time ago, and then he goes inside it. So much for subtlety in imitation...

Syke's writing in this book is every bit as good as in the previous one. He has this way of writing that makes it easy to read lots of pages. His characters are, at once, interesting and nuanced and complicated. There were two new point-of-view characters in BLACK HALO that were really quite good. The first is a wizard that's been charged with tracking down those that use magic "illegally" and without cost, that has difficulty ignoring the abuse of women. This is the character that starts the book off. The one that got me excited about everything because I was going to see more of the world. The second new character is The Mouth, the human through which the sea-goddess Mother Ulbecetonth speaks, that is sent to release The Father from his captivity. Unfortunately for Ulbecetonth, the Mouth's faith is wavering because of a daughter that he lost to sickness a long time ago. Both of these characters are immediately engaging. This is absolutely one thing that Sykes has brought to the table in both of his offerings to us: great characters.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot that really happens in this novel. There's a whole lot of navel-gazing. A whole lot of lying on the beach. A whole lot of hanging out with the lizard men. A whole lot more hanging out on the beach. We get a bunch of back-story and history, both of the characters and the island. Interesting, but progressive to the plot? Honestly, it's not clear yet. There's not a whole lot that happens to the plot, other than, perhaps, it gets fleshed-out a little.

The detailed, blow-by-blow, thought-by-thought writing of TOME OF THE UNDERGATES worked great for one reason: there was so much action going on that the reader just got swallowed up and dragged along with the current. This made the pacing of the novel fast, furious, and absopositutely more fun than the proverbial barrel of ninja-monkeys. Sykes's writing here is much the same, but the book lacks all of the action from the first novel. So the pacing is incredibly slow. Painstakingly such. There are a few exciting spots, some fun fight scenes, some tense creature moments, but what's really missing is a significant amount of progressive action. Most of what is there just feels random or pointless. I did like the climax...well, the end of the book (I don't know if I'd really call it a climax--there wasn't a whole lot of actual build-up), as there was a big fight with lots of monsters and magic and dragonman-mayhem. Still, fun as it was, it didn't feel like it progressed the plot at all. Except to set up the third book. Which it did perfectly. But sill, this is a perfect example of the whole "Middle Book Syndrome" you read about a lot on this blog. If there's anything that's obvious by the end of BLACK HALO, it is that the third book of the Aeon's Gate will be just a chock-full of violence and carnage as TOME OF THE UNDERGATES was, if not massively more so. Which is good, as long as it ends with something other than Lenk getting his hands on the Tome. Again.

Some day I think that Sam Sykes is going to be a really good author. He has "the way" with words. He knows how to write not just characters, but character. And he has a wildly imaginative mind to boot. His books are fun. I admit it, though, I expected a lot out of this one while feeling like I got very little. Too much character, not enough plot. Not enough progressive story. Lots to like, but this one would need so much more, and so much less, to be something really great. Here's to hoping that the next one is a step up, and that it's considerably more than just action.

Recommended age: 18 plus
Language: Mild swearing, not frequent.
Violence: When the action comes, there's a whole bundle, and it gets messy.
Sex: Some more kissing, some humorous references, and a fairly disturbing scene of violation that is, thankfully, interrupted.

Sam Sykes Official Website

The Greyfriar

Clay and Susan Griffith’s novel, THE GREYFRIAR—the first novel in their Vampire Empire series—has been receiving all sorts of rave reviews. Naturally when a novel gets that much good press, it grabs our attention. At that point our only option is to read it to see if the hype is justified.

The first thing we decided was that THE GREYFRIAR should probably be marketed to the female readers in the Urban Fantasy crowd. The reasons why become readily apparent the further into the book you read. But more on that later--we just felt we should get that out of the way right from the beginning.

The world Clay and Susan Griffith have created is an alternate history of our own world that has drastically altered the future. In 1870 a vampire apocalypse--called the Great Killing--drives humans basically out of the northern hemisphere. In this world vampires can’t cope very well with heat, so the surviving humans retreat to the tropics to rebuild their civilization. Fast-forward to the year 2020. In a steampunk-like society, the two major nations of humans are on the verge of joining together through an arranged marriage which in turn will mark the beginning of humanity’s efforts to eradicate the vampire menace.

The novel starts off terrifically. The Griffiths give the readers a fairly good idea of what things are like in the world. From airships, to politics, to the way vampires are portrayed. In those first few chapters we get some good world building, and some good character introductions. And then BAM, huge action sequence. We get a good sense of the absolute horror these people feel when encountering the monstrous vampires.

But for us, this is also when things go wrong.

The main PoV of THE GREYFRIAR is Adele, the heir to the throne of the Equatorian Empire. Along with her only sibling--the royal backup plan should Adele ever die--Adele is on a tour of the border lands of her Empire. Even the characters in the novel comment on how dumb of an idea this is. “Yeah, let’s send out our only two heirs to the dangerous borders of our nation. What could possible go wrong?” There was really no need for it, and the consequences aren’t even really explored (indeed it introduces a plot hole later). When the initial action sequence gets moving, Adele is obviously placed in a ton of danger. Vampires attack her warship, sending it crashing to the ground. The terror is everywhere. Her brother is attacked. Things seem hopeless.

Enter the Greyfriar. A vampire killing masked-man whose true identity is unknown. He saves Adele while killing his way through the vampire aggressors. He seems oddly strong and quick. He is Adele’s Zorro.

And thus begins the most predictable plot progression we’ve seen in a novel this decade (well, apart from the recently released THE UNREMEMBERED...but at least THE GREYFRIAR wasn't a total plot ripoff of another novel). From the instant the masked Greyfriar is introduced, we predicted EXACTLY how the plot would progress. Look, we’ve all read this story before. Damsel in distress is rescued by masked man. But why is he masked? Why, to cause conflict and a breach of trust the instant he shows the damsel his true visage. Can you connect the dots from here? You should be able to. It was utterly predictable all the way to the very end with the requisite “It has always been you” moment. The female demographic really seems to be the group loving this romantic story, and that’s fine. It wasn’t until we forced ourselves to think of the novel as chicklit that we could reconcile many of our problems with it.

The problem is that it was the absolute safe route. No risks were taken in this novel. None. And that right there is the single most disappointing aspect in this novel.

Were there other annoyances? Definitely. The Griffiths seem to bounce between 3rd Person Limited and 3rd Person Omniscient when ever the mood suits them. Action sequences were the biggest offender. The Limited sections were written so much better than the Omniscient ones, and we hope that they learned from this experience and write the next novel in pure Limited. Another problem? In the ARC we read a character is seemingly paralyzed in one scene, then running around the next. Hopefully we just read that wrong or it was corrected in the final release. Also, there are times when distances seemed accurate when characters were running around England, and other times when they just didn’t add up. Lastly, we really don’t like the title. Vampire Empire? Ugh. Throw in GREYFRIAR and say it all as fast as you can. And we’re really getting tired of the never-changing Chris McGrath covers (not the authors’ fault, obviously).

It’s a real shame there were this many problems with the novel because there were also some really great moments. The description of the violence was perfectly brutal, and the action scenes that stuck to the Limited PoV were pretty awesome. Descriptions were great, especially of London. While the characters were a tad flat and predictable, there were still interesting for the most part. The overall pacing of the novel was very quick and fluid when it wasn’t getting bogged down by eye-roll inducing moments.

When we initially finished the novel, we didn’t like it at all. However once we allowed a little time to pass and decided this was targeted more at females than a true male/female split demographic, we softened our opinion a little. This series still has plenty of promise, and many of the things we had problems with obviously haven’t bothered a large chunk of readers. This is one of those novels that for us is mediocre. Will you like it? Tough call. We recommend you read it for the potential it has and decide for yourselves.

Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: Not really.
Violence: Tons, usually well done.
Sex: The world of this novel is very much entrenched in the whole Victorian “we are all super proper” way of thinking. Sex isn’t openly discussed.

The Quantum Thief

THE QUANTUM THIEF, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a Hard SF book packed with ideas, twists and turns. It is difficult. It is confusing. I don't think I understood the whole thing. I also loved every minute of it.

To try and describe the book would leave me feeling inadequate and stupid. I just know I'll miss something, or not do it justice. So I'm going to let the back of the book describe it for you.

Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first. Just another day in the Diemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is a currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night. Meanwhile, investigator Isadore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, finds himself on the trail of an archcriminal, a man named le Flambeur.

Indeed, in his many lives, the entity called Jean le Flambeur has been a thief, a confidence artist, a posthuman mind-burglar, and more. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his deeds are known throughout the Heterarchy, from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. In his last exploit, he managed the supreme feat of hiding the truth about himself from the one person in the solar system hardest to hide from: himself. Now he has the chance to regain himself in all his power-in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.

See? There was no way I was going to get close to that kind of description.

So let's get right down to it, OK? This book has some flaws. To start with, the characters are fairly two dimensional. Most of the story is following Jean around, and he's trying to crack into his old memories and find who he was. His personality changes throughout the book as bits and pieces get uncovered--some will like this, some will have a hard time becoming attached to the character. The other two main characters, Isidore and Mieli, are mostly there to help get through Jean's story--don't expect much else from them by way of personal information or growth. Perhaps the main issue that will stop a large number of people from liking the novel is just how incredibly dense the novel is. This isn't Space Opera--it may be very difficult for the new SF reader to really get into this work. The science in the book is insane and it took me a good 10-15 pages to start understanding some of the words (gogol, gevulot, etc...).

But personally, I don't care. That's not what THE QUANTUM THIEF is about in my opinion. Again, this isn't a light and fluffy SF novel. This is Hard SF. The science detailed and often hard to grasp. It is about the ideas, about a new and fascinating vision of a far future. This book is something new, different and alien and I loved it for that fact. There were several instances while reading where I shut the book and simply absorbed the ideas and concepts that the author presented. The implications of some of the technology was amazing. This book is about the ideas and about a mystery surrounding those ideas and in that the book succeeded on every level.

My heads still buzzing from reading THE QUANTUM THIEF. If you like SF novels that are heavy on the science and action, that cram insanely cool ideas down your throat every page or so, then this is certainly the book for you. I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. As for me, I'm going to go read THE QUANTUM THIEF again.

Age Recommendation: 15+ Nothing really wrong here, just a thick read. The age rec. is kinda dependent on your ability to grasp the deep concepts.
Language: Not too much. A few words here and there.
Violence: A few action scenes but nothing with blood or gore.
Sex: An implied scene, nothing more.


Honestly this novel was extremely difficult for me to rate. There was a whole lot of this book that I absolutely loved. Aaaaand a bundle of stuff that completely annoyed me. Thus, the experience ended up being akin to approaching an uber-hot blonde that doesn't shave her armpits or brush her teeth: you just can't tell you won't like it until you get close enough. So, did I like it? Mostly. However, let me elucidate.

WOLFSANGEL is M.D. Lachlan’s first foray into fantasy, though it’s fairly difficult to tell. Herein he gives us a story that is quite character-centric, with great world building, awesome atmosphere, magical interlopers, twisted plot--the works. Norse mythology plays a central role to the world, but the story feels fresh and new despite the fact. There is so much here to like and Lachlan gives it to us in large measure.

The story starts with King Athun, lord and leader of his people, who has gathered his ten finest men at the behest of his own prophetic ability and is off to steal himself an heir apparent from another village. But when he arrives, there are two boys, not one, and the king has to make a decision. With little choice, he grabs them both and their mother and journeys to the witches of the Troll Wall to ask them what he must do. Thus begins the tale of the two boys. Both sired by a god--one raised by a king, the other by witches and mountain men--to play a role central to the land and its peoples.

Sounds pretty good, yeah? Well, like I said, it was...for the most part. The beginning was really rough, with jumps from the head of one character to another, information and history dumped into our laps, and a whole lot of "Huh?" all bunched onto the page. It feels very much like a hazy tale from the days of oral tradition--very abstract, loose, and ultimately kinda meh. Then, after six chapters (and what seemed to me would probably better suit the book as a long prologue) the story leaves the king behind and leaps to the stories of the two boys several years in the future, then pretty much sticks with them for the duration.

It was at this point that I started to get into the story. The first of the boys, Vali, has a local love interest, gets included in a Viking-like raiding party, and has enough character to just make me cheer. Feilig, Vali's lost brother, loses his mentor and quasi-father, and begins to wander the world. Eventually they meet, Feilig starts to eye Vali's lovely girl, and the result is a ton more goodness. Through them, we immediately get a sense of the world and how it works. Kings with lands and villages beholden to him, frequent raiding parties, tests of strength and manhood. In short, the world is cold, hard, and without mercy. For the most part the pacing of the book is slow and methodical. Plot progression comes at the head of violence from multiple directions, and soon this becomes not only a story of growth and love, but of revenge and hatred as well.

The head-jumping persists, though in limited form. Those of you that OK with 3rd Person Omniscient PoV won't have much trouble here. It's very light, and very clear 99% of the time. Most of the time this PoV style isn't even noticeable since there's a whole lot of time with only minimal interaction between the characters, leaving but a single option. In these times, the book gets downright awesome. At the other end of the swing though stands the fact that when things are supposed to get exciting, like during battles and at confrontations, the head jumping can foster confusion and tension is quickly lost--this is a problem in most actions scenes in any novel using Omniscient. Lacking this single PoV issue, this book was probably one of the most amazingly good books I’ve read in a long time and would have brought on some serious “Love” from yours truly (with some serious agreement from the other reviewers here at EBR).

Well, if not for the ending, that is.

Because, you see, the ending of a book is supposed to be the part that is the MOST exciting and the MOST incredible out of everything else we’ve yet read, and based on what I’ve just told you, I’m sure you can imagine a bit of what happened. PoV shifts every couple of paragraphs, piled on top of repetitive backtracking to get everyone into the same cave, mixed with “plot-twist” revelation that makes you repeatedly say Huh?, and everything coming together in a crescendo of violence that left me disliking just about everything that occurred. And in these dozens of pages, the book went from a playing in the realm of “Love/Like” to solidly “Mediocre”. The change was THAT drastic and bizarre.

I discussed the ending with the Overlords here at EBR to see if I was nuts. They said yes, but it had nothing to do with the ending of WOLFSANGEL. Steve commented that the real ending of the book happened about 50 or 60 pages before the author's ending. Then everything was tacked on. Then it got even worse with the last 6 pages. It's OK to be weird in a story, but not so weird that you lose the readers who have LOVED 90% of the novel with and ending SO abstract and "out there". The ending is the last thing a reader reads. Obviously. So shouldn't it leave you smiling rather than grinding your teeth?

Some have said that the ending of a book will often dictate, to large degree, whether you like it or not. This was very much the case here. In the end, a good book that was held back from being great by poor 60-page "bookends". It is still worth a read for most of you fantasy lovers. Just be prepared for the head jumping (if that bothers you) and the really odd ending. Will I dive into the sequel? Yup. Though I truly hope it doesn't suffer from a repetitive story and the same ill-fitting bookends.

Recommended age: 16 plus, for violence
Language: Very little, though strong
Violence: Giant werewolf with a taste for gallons of blood: 1 + 1 = ??
Sex: Minor references

MD Lachlan’s blog

River Marked

Mercy's life changed when she moved to tri-cities Washington. Since then she's had run-ins with vampires and demons, lived next door to the a werewolf pack's Alpha, collected a fae artifact or two along the way--and has risked her life several times to help her friends. But now, in RIVER MARKED, we get to see something a little more personal about Mercy: her Native American heritage.

Mercy is engaged to marry Adam Hauptman, Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf back. She may not be a werewolf, herself, but Mercy can hold her own. She's a 'walker', a shape-shifter who can become a coyote--an ability she inherited from her Native American father, and which has served her well in the past when she's had to fight the vampires and fae she inevitably comes in contact with.

Early in the novel Mercy and Adam get married, and hope for a nice, private honeymoon. Of course, that's not what they get. Instead they get a river monster, straight out of American Indian mythology.

But they can't fight the monster alone: the local Indian shaman and friends lend a hand, as well as Coyote. Yes, the god Coyote from Native American mythology--the one who long ago didn't kill the river monster when he had the chance. Remember that Mercy can turn into a coyote? It turns out that Coyote may have had something to do with that...

If you enjoyed the other books in Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, then RIVER MARKED (book 6) will not only continue with the characters you love so much, but you get to see Mercy and Adam grow and change, and learn a little bit about Mercy's heritage. I enjoy Adam and Mercy's relationship, how they work as a team and trust each other, how they respect their limitations and allow flaws without letting it ruin the relationship. Unfortunately we don't get to see much of the regular gang; but that's not necessarily a bad thing since we actually get to see a lot of time with Adam and Mercy together.

Coyote in particular is a fun character--you can tell that Briggs has done her homework. Seeing his interactions, behaviors, and willingness to sacrifice made him engaging; I hope I get to see him again in the series. The other characters aren't more than shallow surfaces, but since it's a short book there really wasn't time for much else. And as usual, Briggs' world is multi-faceted. While she uses extant mythologies and locations, she weaves them deftly into her stories.

You've likely grown familiar with Briggs' prose and straightforward storytelling, and here it continues as easy-to-read as ever. The plot moves along at a good clip, revealing things at key points, all leading up to the exciting conclusion. Usually Briggs has a convoluted scene or explanation in her books; but not this time, everything was clear and engaging.

This series is a great palate cleanser--delightful and entertaining. You could read RIVER MARKED without having read the previous ones. But if you're an urban fantasy lover, you should read all the books, starting with MOON CALLED.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: A mere handful of uses.
Violence: A fair amount, since people die, but it's on par with similar books.
Sex: Nothing graphic, but Adam and Mercy are on their honeymoon, so it's talked about.

The Wise Man's Fear

Honestly I don't know how anyone has reviewed this book. Don't get me wrong, I've read quite a few reviews of Patrick Rothfuss' THE WISE MAN'S FEAR. They were intelligent, well written and made me want to read the book even more. I just didn't know how I was going to be able to write one.


Because the book isn't done. I can certainly say, "Wow, that's a heck of a start!" THE NAME OF THE WIND, the first book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, certainly was. I can say, "Geez, the second third of that book was really interesting and had some beautiful language. I can't wait to see what happens at the end!" And THE WISE MAN'S FEAR is easily all of that. My problem is I'm a little afraid at this point. Does Patrick Rothfuss know how to finish this extremely well-told tale? I don't know. He hasn't done it yet.

Now, I've read a few series in my day. One that immediately comes to mind is the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. Having read all three books I can tell you that Brandon told a big wonderful beautiful story that spanned all three books. It was amazing. I loved it. But, and it's a big "But", he also told me three smaller stories in between. Each of the three books had a satisfying conclusion. There was conflict, there was resolution and there was character growth. Not just over the trilogy, but over each separate novel. The Kingkiller Chronicles are not like that at all. I have never seen a clearer example of one book (one big, big book) split up into several parts. The books simply end, to be continued on the next book.

So, will this series deliver a stunning conclusion? Will it rank among the great works of fantasy? At this point I just don't know. Rothfuss has set me up (and let's not kid ourselves, he's set us up well and beautifully), but until that last book comes out I just can't be sure.

OK. With that out of the way let's talk more about this book in particular. It was beautiful. The prose is seamless and easy. Accessible. I likes me some writers that use beautiful language. I'm a huge fan of both Miéville and Valente, but every time I read one of their books, I know I'm reading it. I'm working at it. I'm devouring the language. Rothfuss manages to be effortless and beautiful at the same time. No easy feat. I would even recommend reading it out loud. The book is meant to be spoken, meant to have a voice.

The characters are great--mostly Kvothe, the central character. He is cocky, arrogant and intensely likable. There are few characters I've read that I feel I know better than that little red headed guy. He's a character you root for and ache for. The other characters in the world are, by necessity, less fleshed out but feel just as real. It's a wonderful world to visit and I was happy each time I picked the book up to spend some time with these people.

However, the one complaint I had with the book was that it felt a bit too long. Looking back at it I can see what happened and it doesn't seem to warrant the 1000 + pages. I think it could have been a few hundred pages less and trimmed some of the fat. Also, since the book just...ends, it's hard to really identify much in the way of plot progression. I discussed this with the other reviewers here at EBR, and the main comment was, "Soooo, has Kvothe really done anything other than have lots of casual sex? I don't really feel like I know this world or this story any better than I did before." Some will disagree, but it's easy to see both sides of the coin here.

I just realized that I haven't talked about the book much at all. I'm OK with that. If you've heard anything about fantasy books over the last year I'm sure you've heard of this one. It was a New York Times Number 1 Bestseller, for Pete's sake. You all probably have it already. Most likely I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before. So I'll tell you this: Despite the fact that the story isn't done, this is a wonderful book. I enjoyed every page and even if I haven't reached the destination yet, the journey has been well worth my time.

If you don't have it yet, go get it. If you do have it, then don't waste your time here, go read it, you'll be glad you did.

Age Recommendation: 16+ for sexy times
Language: None really to speak of. Maybe a word here or there.
Violence: A little, but not graphic.
Sex: Surprisingly yes. Kvothe is a teenage boy who suddenly has lots of sex towards the end of the book. Never described in much detail, but make no mistake, it's there. Thank goodness he has that contraceptive he carries around with him, or he would have, like, a bajillion illegitimate offspring. Honestly, it all seemed a little much...