Category Archives: Urban fantasy

Borderline (the Arcadia Project 1) by Mishell Baker.

Stars: 5 out of 5

A year ago, Millie listened to the little voice in her head telling her that her life is worthless and stepped off a roof. She survived, but lost both her legs and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Now she lives in a mental institution and is pretty sure that both her promising filmmaking career and her life is pretty much over. That is until she gets a second chance to make something out of her disaster when she accepts to work for the Arcadia Project.

When you read the blurb for Borderline, it sounds like a generic urban fantasy series. Even the supernatural creatures are generic – fae have been done before. You might be tempted to dismiss this book right away, but that would be a big mistake because you would lose the opportunity to read a very good story.

I picked up this book almost as an afterthought. Nothing in my reading pile sounded good at the time and Amazon put this in the “Also Bought” suggestions, so I gave it a go, not expecting much… I finished it in one day. I literally only stopped long enough to eat and didn’t move of my couch until I turned the last page. Good thing it was a Saturday.

I loved this book. I loved the story. I loved Millie. I loved all the secondary characters. I loved the setting and the world they lived in.

Mishell Baker has an interesting take on the fae and their influence on our world. In Borderline, every creative person has a muse, who is a fae. It’s a symbiotic relationship – the fae gives his or her human inspiration to create art, write books, film movies, and so on. In exchange, the fae who are paired with a human become capable of logical thinking and can grasp such disciplines as mathematics, architecture, engineering, etc. There is a quid pro quo in this relationship with both parties gaining something from each other.

I like that the longer the fae stays on Earth, the more “assimilated” it becomes, slowly losing its creativeness while it acquires more logical aptitudes. That’s why the Acradia Project has rules and regulations in place. That’s why they keep track of all the fae and follow a strict schedule as to when and for how long they can remain on Earth.

It’s not often that you find a disabled protagonist in a book, especially one that doesn’t transform into a disabled superhero by the end of the book or whose disability is conveniently forgotten about or set aside when the plot needs it.

Millie is not like that. She isn’t just token broken. As a double amputee, she faces a lot of everyday challenges and the book doesn’t gloss over that or give her a sudden ability to levitate. She also has a serious mental illness that impacts her everyday life and her interactions with everyone she encounters. You can see that the author did some in depth research into borderline personality disorder and thought about how this illness will impact the plot.

I like that despite the challenges that she faces, Millie has a very serious and down to earth approach to her life and her struggles. Apart from that first fateful jump off a roof, she never exhibits more suicidal tendencies. Once she learns she is a borderline, she learns everything she can about both the illness and the coping mechanisms that would help her function in society. I love the fact that when Millie has episodes, she is rational enough to understand what is happening and that she even tries to apply the techniques she learned to try and deescalate the situation. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, but it’s nice to see a protagonist who tries to lead a normal life despite everything.

The story is well written and fast paced, and if you are anything like me, it will grip you and not let you go until the end.

So I will definitely recommend Borderline to all my friends and I can’t wait to pick up Phantom Pains, the second book in the series.

Halfway Dead by Terry Maggert.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

Once in a while you come across a book that gets you really excited about reading it because it starts with a great character who has a distinct voice and who seems to be telling a compelling story… then either goes horribly wrong halfway through or simply veers into meh category.

Sadly, this is exactly what happened with Halfway Dead. This book had so much promise! We are introduced to Carlie in the middle of action, when she goes for a little clean up job and tackles a pair of wendigos who moved close to her beloved town of Halfway with clearly nefarious intentions. She is efficient and self-reliant during that encounter, never losing her cool. We get an excellent introduction to our protagonist and an “on the job” explanation of how her magic works. She has a distinctive voice and she has sass.

At that point, I was invested in the story and ready to follow Carlie wherever her adventures or misadventures lead her. Unfortunately, the story starts unraveling pretty much right after that initial introduction.

Some random dude by the name of Major Pickford approaches her to help him find a grove of ancient chestnut trees. I would be ok with that if this plot point was presented better than it was. First, this Major appears in one scene where he hires Carlie to find those trees then disappears and is NEVER SEEN AGAIN for the rest of the book. Second, the story he feeds Carlie about why he wants those trees is so fantabulous that you really have to be stupid to believe it. Yet, Carlie believes and accepts without doing too much research to verify if what Major says is true. Author, why? You just showed us that your protagonist is a smart cookie when she handled the wendigos, but this scene undid all that good work.

At this point I was still determined to see this story through, even if my investment in it had gone down a notch, but it only gets worse afterwards.

Carlie goes to the local library and does a little bit of research into that mysterious grove of trees and discovers that it has ties to her family… and a ghost speaks to her from an old photograph and asked her to come find him. As a motivation for our protagonist to venture forth, that’s pretty good. Only it fails to confer any urgency to the situation. If you think about it, Carlie really has no stakes in this matter. Both the trees and the ghost had been there for three hundred years, so they will still be there whether she goes now or waits a few more decades.

The other problem is that when the next random stranger approaches her and tells her that Major basically fed her a load of lies, she still agreed to go into the mountains with this new stranger instead. Girl, where is your brain? Didn’t the situation just prove to you that there is a lot more at stake than you think or know and that you shouldn’t take anybody at face value? Sure, she calls the company this guy supposedly works for, but what proof those she have that she really talked to the CEO of that company? Also, how often do we call a multimillion dollar corporation and get to speak to the CEO directly as soon as we ask for it?

But my biggest frustration with this book are the dialogues. They don’t make sense. People just don’t speak and behave like that in real life. They all speak in riddles. They all go pages and pages of talk to say nothing that would advance the plot or explain the situation. And Carlie just accepts this avoidance and clear change of subject as a given. On more than one occasion, I wanted to reach into the page and slap some sense into both her and whomever she was talking to.

Add to that the sluggish pace at which the story is moving and the many interruptions to admire the scenery or get an excursion into the land’s (and the character’s) past, and you get a book that I ended up almost hate-reading until the end. And I did it only because I had a review to write and I don’t review books I don’t finish.

So to summarize, Halfway Dead is a book that had such great promise, but sort of unraveled halfway through like a badly knit sweater, leaving me with a lot of frustration at its unrealized potential and a conundrum as to how to rate it. I loved the first 1/4 of it. I was okay with the next 2/4. I would never have made it through the last 1/4 if I didn’t have a review to write.

PS. I received and advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Etched in Bone (The Others 5) by Anne Bishop.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I love this series. I love the worldbuilding; I love the characters; I love the stories in each subsequent book. So I can’t help to be excited when I got my hands on Etched in Bone. “What are Meg and Simon up to now?” I ask myself. And let me tell you, they both made big steps in this book, both individually and towards each other, but we’ll get to that in due time.

First, a bit of shameless self-promotion. I have been following this series since its debut, so if you are interested in reading my other reviews, just click on the links: book one, book two, book three, book four.

How much human should the terra indigene keep? This is the question that Simon and all the Others at the Lakeside courtyard have to answer. And that answer is not only for the Elders who took an interested in Meg and the curious relationship terra indigene and humans have in the courtyard. No, Simon, Vlad and the others need to decide for themselves as well. Since terra indigene transform to take the traits of the strongest predators, they can become too human and risk losing part of what makes them wolfguard or sanginati. So how much human is too much? Not only in the numbers of the human pack that now lives in the courtyard and relies on its resources, but also in the interactions they have with those humans and how much they allow themselves to change.

The theme of change is central to this book. Simon and the courtyard Others struggle to determine just how much they need and want to change now that they have Meg and the human pack to think about. The humans living in Lakeside are face with a much steeper change of circumstances now that the terra indigene have reclaimed most of the lands. Meg and the other cassandra sangue are trying to choose a way of speaking prophesy that doesn’t involve cutting…

And Meg has their own struggles and her own choices to make as well. She has found a place where she belongs and people (human and other) she considers friends and family, so it’s only natural for her to want to fit in, to be as normal as possible. She wants to do everything they can do and she doesn’t want to cause them more problems than necessary. Unfortunately, in her desire to be normal, she forgets that she is not normal and can’t really be normal – she is cassandra sangue.

Simon has to come to terms with his own feelings towards Meg and what that means both for him and for the courtyard. I’m glad that he finally decides to be upfront with Meg about this, and that they approach the situation like responsible adults and talk it out, even if it takes some rather traumatic events for them to get to that conversation.

The other important theme in Etched in Bone is that evil doesn’t always act overtly. It can present a perfectly harmless façade to the world. And that one bad apple can sour the whole barrel, or in this case one individual can threaten the peaceful existence inside Lakeside’s human pack. To the Elders, the arrival of Morty’s brother is nothing more than an interesting development in their quest to understand humans. They are perfectly happy to observe and not interfere, letting the human pack deal with this intrusion. Unfortunately, they also want to keep him in the Courtyard for observation, so the humans can’t do the one logical thing that would help them deal with this toxic person – cast him out.

This decision almost ends in disaster and teacher the Elders a valuable lesson – just because they are Namid’s teeth and claws, it doesn’t make them infallible. They can make mistakes and live with the consequences. And that sometimes what seems like a small stone falling off a cliff can trigger a landslide.

All in all, I loved the progress all of the characters made in this book and I am excited to see where they will go from here. The others, at least in Lakeside and around the Simple Folk villages, are starting to treat their humans as a valuable part of the pack. Lakeside humans are actively working on restoring as much order and cooperation as they can in their city. Cassandra sangue finally learn how to survive outside of their cells and hopefully not die after a thousand cuts telling prophecies. Let’s see where the next book takes us.

PS. I received and advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Battle Hill Bolero (Bone Street Rumba 3) by Daniel Jose Older.

Stars: 3 out of 5

I must admit that I’m disappointed with this book. I had loved Midnight Taxi Tango (which I reviewed as well), so I was looking forward to see what trouble Carlos, Sasha, Reza and Kia would manage to get themselves into next.

Well, bad news is, even though we still get Carlos and Sasha POVs, Kia is virtually non-existent in Battle Hill Bolero, and Reza seems to have taken a long sabbatical or something. Same goes for a few other characters I really liked from the previous books, like Baba Eddie. Instead, we are introduced to a plethora of new characters that seem to have come out of nowhere, like Krys, the River Giants and a bunch of other ghosts. Oh, they are interesting and fully fleshed out, but they seem tacked on to the story and spend most of the book on the outskirts of the main action, sorta hanging there with nothing particularly important to do until the last battle.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I really loved Krys. Once again, Mr. Older has a knack for creating wonderfully diverse characters that you WANT to follow. The problem is, the path Krys follows is barely tangent to the story for most of the book. So much so that her story feels disconnected from the main events.

And why is Caitlin even in this book? Her story was pretty much done with the destruction of the blattodeon at the end of Midnight Taxi Tango. Oh, we could have had an excellent revenge arc where she could have sought to destroy Carlos and Sasha for bringing down everything she’d worked for her entire life. Unfortunately, the author chose not to take that route. Instead, she is hangs on the outskirts of the story for most of the book and only plays an important role during the last battle, but even that story arc could have been taken out of the book entirely without any major damage to the story. Caitlin is a non-entity. She gets no personal development at all, which is rather surprising for an author who loves creating characters that feel so alive they jump out of the book page at you. Her only role in the book is to be a weapon and to distract Carlos from the main fight for a few minutes.

This is so disappointing because, like I already mentioned, she could have been so much more. Just imagine – a powerful necromancer going after the people who killed her family, destroyed the cult she had dedicated her entire life to and basically left her future in shambles. That warranted a whole book dedicated to the clash between these powers.

And this is where my major complaint about Battle Hill Bolero lies – the story. It doesn’t feel like the third book in a series and a direct continuation of Midnight Taxi Tango. When I started the book, I had to go on Amazon and make sure that I didn’t skip a couple more books in the series, because I was so confused with the direction of the story. By the end of Midnight Taxi Tango, Carlos, Sasha and their group had defeated the blattodeon and saved their children from a gruesome fate. Yes, there had been rumblings about the Council of the Dead among the ghosts, and Carlos didn’t particularly like his employers, but nothing even hinted at the full-out confrontation we start Battle Hill Bolero with. Where did that come from?

The author implies that only a few months passed between the two books, but for the situation to escalate like this, a lot of things must have happened. Things that aren’t even mentioned or explained. So the reader starts the book with a nagging feeling that they skipped an important portion of the story. As a result, I felt disconnected from most of the new characters. I was so busy trying to figure out the stakes and the whats and the whys of the situation to concentrate on the plethora of new characters that were thrown my way.

It is sad that this happened, because I truly loved this series; the diversity and complexity of the world; the vivid and interesting characters. But this book feels rushed and disjointed at the same time, which almost puts me off this series entirely. I might give the next book a read or I might not, but I won’t be eagerly waiting for it anymore.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hidden Blade (The Soul Eater 1) by Pippa DaCosta.

Stars: 4 out of 5

Hidden Blade is the first book in a new series by Pippa DaCosta and it has all the ingredients I came to expect from this author after I read Chaos Rises (which I also reviewed): excellent worldbuilding, interesting (if not always likable) characters, and non-stop action.

Ace Dante has been banned from the Underworld and bound to the dark soul of the evilest sorceress he’d ever captured. Now they are condemned to walk this Earth together, because the death of one will bring the destruction of the other as well. So they decide to open a private investigation agency and help mortals in sticky situations where gods are involved.

Oh yes, this is a world where ancient deities never disappeared. They just adapted and morphed and are more powerful than ever. And they like to play games in which mortals have very little chances of winning. That’s where Ace comes in, offering what help he can to even the odds. But when Bastet, goddess of cats and Ace’s ex-wife asks for his help, Ace might just find himself in an impossible situation, because helping her means going against Osiris and Isis, and Osiris has a claim on Ace’s soul. A claim that Ace cannot deny. A compulsion that he simply cannot fight, no matter how much he tries, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

As far as first books go, Hidden Blade does an excellent job of introducing the protagonist and the world he lives in as well as showing us exactly what the stakes are. Ace isn’t a nice guy or even particularly a good guy, but he’s been placed into an impossible situation so the reader can’t help but empathize with the poor devil. And despite not being a good guy, he still tries to do the right thing in most situations, even when that means angering the god that can literally order your heart to stop beating at any moment.

Because Egyptian Gods are not very benevolent entities in this world. They are flawed and petty and all-powerful, which is a very bad combination. They can bestow a blessing or reap the supplicant’s heart out and eat it with the same ease, depending on their mood. And Osiris is the most powerful of the Gods, so making him your enemy is a royally bad idea.

As I mentioned above, the action is also relentless. The book is fast paced and keeps you at the edge of your sit all the way through. But even though the story barrels towards the inevitable conclusion at speeds way above the legal limit, it doesn’t feel rushed. Surprising, I know. We still get a glimpse into our characters’ pasts and the motivations behind their actions. We still slow down enough to look around this world and decide that yes, it’s something we would like to learn more about. We learn a bit about Ace, but aren’t given much clues as to what happened in the past that got him banned out of the Underworld and basically put on a leach by Osiris. And the events in the last quarter of the book have such an impact that now I NEED to pick up book 2 and see if Osiris will get what he deserves for what he did…

So to recap this rather rambling review, this book does an excellent job of introducing a new world and making the reader care for the characters. I would definitely recommend it to urban fantasy lovers. And I will pick up book 2 to see where the story goes.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Winter Halo (Outcast book 2) by Keri Arthur.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

 

I had read and reviewed City of Light, the first book in the Outcast series, and I had absolutely loved it. So I awaited the next installment with no small amount of anticipation and, I must admit it, dread.

 

Why dread, might you ask? Because too often the second book in a series is the weakest, especially if book one was excellent, like it was here. The worldbuilding is set, the characters have been introduced, but it’s too early to start on the main conflict of the series, so book two is often a slump that can easily be skipped (I’m looking at you, October Daye).

 

So how did Winter Halo fare when it comes to the dreaded second book slump? It did better than most, but didn’t escape it entirely. The story moved forward, and we got another piece of the big puzzle, but the main premise of the book still felt… rather secondary.

 

The book picks up right where the first book left off, and there is no rest for the wicked, and no time for Tiger to lick wounds or reflect on the betrayal of some people she’d just began to trust. Yes, they managed to rescue the children held by the vampires, but at least five more are missing, and the odds of finding them alive are bad. And even though one of the people she’d agreed to work with just tried to kill her, Tiger wouldn’t be Tiger if she just stood by and let those children get hurt without at least trying to do something. So she chooses to ally herself with the shifters again, albeit reluctantly, and infiltrate Winter Halo, the company they had investigated in book 1…

 

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. I am still loving Tiger. She is a strong and kickass protagonist who knows her strengths and uses them to advance her cause. I love that she has a strong moral compass and a depth of compassion and love that not many “normal” people have, let alone other dechet. Her relationship with Cat and Bear, the two ghost children that are tied to her, is both heartwarming and incredibly sad. And I understand why she would go to the lengths she goes to find the missing children – She watched all the little dechet children in her care slaughtered and was unable to save them, and has to live with that guilt (and their ghosts), so she would rather die than watch another child hurt.

 

My problem is that this book does a poor job of following through with this premise. We start looking for those still missing children right off the bat. The author even tells us that their time is running out, so you would think that there would be some sense of urgency there? Nope. Tiger and her crew seem to meander all over the place and stumble into bigger plots along the way, and the mention of those children who are still missing is thrown here and there almost like an afterthought.

 

Second problem is that this particular storyline isn’t even resolved by the end of the book. SPOILER ALERT!!! The children are still missing by the end, and Tiger (and the reader) isn’t any closer to finding them than she was in the beginning.

 

And finally, what Tiger discovers in Winter Halo is so big that the destiny of a few children rather pales in comparison… yet it’s not properly addressed in the book or acknowledged by the characters. It’s like hey, the creatures from the rifts might be planning to take over our world and exterminate everyone who lives here, but let’s not talk about that, because the children are still missing…

 

On a positive note, Tiger eliminated yet another villain and, hopefully, threw a wrench in the group’s plans to destroy the world. And she had an honest talk with her love interest after which both decided to give the relationship a chance. Color me pleasantly surprised, because most series would have milked that sexual tension for at least another 2-3 books. I’m glad it’s resolved though, because that opens a new chapter in their relationship to explore – how will they deal with dating each other, coming from such different backgrounds and with such a history of hate and violence between their species? And even if it wasn’t for that, not many books choose to explore the difficulties and joys of two people trying to build something together after that initial “we love each other, let’s hook up” phase.

 

So my wish for the next book is this – let’s finally put that missing children plot to rest. Either find them already or write them off as casualties of this shadow war, but enough is enough. And let’s focus on the more pressing problem of some unknown baddies that have allies even inside the city government trying to destroy the world.

 

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Urban Shaman (The Walker Papers 1) by C. E. Murphy.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

 

I don’t give a one star review to a book very often. Usually, when a book is only worthy of one star in my opinion, it ends up in my DNF (Did Not Finish) pile, and I don’t write reviews on DNF because it wouldn’t be fair to the author if I reviewed something I didn’t finish.

 

But I actually stuck around until the very end of Urban Shaman, because I kept hoping that things would get better. Sadly, they didn’t, which is a shame, really, because the book is well written. There is plenty of action. I didn’t particularly hate the protagonist, even though I didn’t fall in love with her either. There are a few juicy pieces of worldbuilding that kept me interested and wanting to learn more… Problem is, the bad in this book outweighed the good, at least for me.

 

But first things first, Joanne Walker is a car mechanic working for the police department. She is also a mixt race, because her father was Native American and her mother Irish, though she knows little of either of those cultures (I’m not even sure it’s mentioned which Native American tribe her father belonged to, just that Joanne spent some time with the Native Americans in North Carolina). While on a plane back from Ireland where she attended her mother’s funeral, she spots a woman being chased by an armed man and decides to help as soon as the plane lands. This choice will change her life forever…

 

I can see you frowning in puzzlement and trying to re-read that last paragraph, but no, I didn’t make a mistake. Joanne spots a woman running away from a man armed with a knife FROM A DESCENDING plane. Wow, even Hawkeye from the Avengers would be impressed with that! Not only that, but she manages to triangulate the part of the city in which it happened “using basic math she learned at school” (I didn’t say that, the author did). Once again, I’m impressed. Even if I could see something this precise from a descending plane (again, the plane wasn’t even landing yet, but executing the descending approach), I would only have a vague idea where it happened even if I’m familiar with the city.

 

I kept hoping that this miraculous ability would be explained later in the book, but like most of the perks Joanne acquires, the only explanation we get goes along the lines of “it’s magic” or “it’s part of her shaman abilities”. I would be okay with that if there was a learning curve involved in discovering those shaman abilities, but that’s where this book is severely lacking.

 

Every time Joanne encounters a problem, a new ability lands on her lap to bail her out. Pierced by a sword and dying? No problem, let’s enter a trance and heal ourselves! Never mind that Joanne has never attempted a trance before or that healing people and repairing cars have very little in common.

 

Don’t know why the killer is targeting certain people? Let’s enter yet another trance, have an out of body experience and go talk to the ghosts of the victims. Never done that before? Not a problem. You’re a shaman. You instinctively know how to do things like that.

 

It’s that instinctive knowledge that I have a problem with. Shaman is like any other profession, if you think about it. Everyone starts not knowing what they are doing and become more and more proficient with training and experience. Knowledge doesn’t simply land in your lap when convenient. That’s lazy writing.

 

Another sign of lazy writing is how easily both Joanne and people around her accept the existence of the supernatural, even though this world is like ours – logical and materialistic, where supernatural elements stay hidden. Seriously, in the real world, the moment Joanne started spewing all that nonsense about the Wild Hunt and being a shaman to her direct supervisor, he would have called 911 and had her committed. Or he would have just driven her to the psychiatric ward himself, being a cop. Here, he just… accepts it. And he is only one in the long line of people who just take this in stride and roll with it. So much so that this complete non-resistance to the absurdity of the situation threw me completely out of the story on several occasions.

 

And finally, I find it extremely improbable that a person who, in her own words, has no knowledge of either of her parent’s cultures, manages to become an expert in both Celtic myths and Native American shamanism after a few trance induced dreams and a couple internet searches…

 

So to sum this rather extensive review up, this is a very disappointing first book in a series. The world has potential, but I have no desire to stick around and watch Joanne put yet another new ability out of her butt anytime her own rash actions get land her in danger. There are a lot of exciting series that I eagerly follow, but this isn’t one of them.