Category Archives: Urban fantasy

Hunting Season (Twenty-Sided Sorceress 4) Annie Bellet

Stars: 4 out of 5

This series continues to impress. The books are short, but the author does a great job of telling the story and managing some pretty solid character development in the space of around 180-200 pages.

As I had mentioned in my previous reviews, the biggest draw for me is the cast of characters. Too often in urban fantasy our female protagonist is a solitary figure who has no family and next to no friends, especially female. Not so with Jade. I love found family stories and this book has that in spades. Jade has a best friend (who is female, which is a rare species in urban fantasy), and she has other friends ready to help and defend her. And she is more than ready to protect them from harm. 

I love the dynamic in this group of friends. They are all different and powerful in their own ways, and they respect each other enough to trust each other to do their job. Yes, Jade worries about her friends and her boyfriend, but she doesn’t try to be a noble idiot and run off to face danger on her own in order to “protect” them. She includes them in her plans instead and trust them to do their part, even if that puts them in danger. That’s how real teams work, and that’s why I love this series so much.

The story itself moves at a pretty good clip as well and we discover some new information about some old characters and are introduced to some new ones. Unicorns, anyone? And the whole Jade vs the local witch coven standoff was rather hilarious. 

My only complaint here is that this “waiting on big bad Samir to come get us” story is getting a bit old. I know that the series is 10 books long, but I hope that we will not live in anticipation until book 10, because you can delay the confrontation only so long before the reader’s interest flags. I know I’m already getting irritated with the constant implied treat of violence that never comes and we are only on book 4. I will, however, trust the author, because she hasn’t disappointed me so far, so I’m sure she has a good plan for this series.

PS: This book also gets additional points for a great rendition of the “kamehameha” attack. The nerd in me was absolutely delighted.

The Last Days of Hong Kong (Witch of Empire 3) by G. D. Penman

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

I hadn’t realized that this was book 3 of a series, so some of the events were a bit confusing, since I haven’t read the previous 2 installments. I’m interested enough to do go back and do it though.

I think the most interesting part about this series is the world. I mean it’s roughly the present times, but the political, sociological, and magical landscape is very different from our world. It’s a world where a wish granted by a demon or a fae can reshape the world to the liking of the person (or political entity) making the wish. So the Mongolian Empire might capture a demon and wish to dominate the world… and the world will have to accommodate for that. If England summons a fae and wants world dominion instead, well, the world will have to change to accommodate that as well. And where the two opposing wishes collide, chaos ensues. Image a world where you can go to sleep in New York, USA, and wake up in New Amsterdam, English Empire. This is good worldbuilding stuff, and I am all in for that!

Now imagine that after a horrible war, the realms of the fae and demons have been severed from Earth. No more wishes. No more world domination overnight. But then news breaks that one demon remains trapped on Earth, so whoever gets it will have the last wish left on this plane of existence. Blood will flow, people will die, cities will be destroyed, as all knowns powers race to get their hands on the prize.

I also liked the protagonist. She is a complex character with a lot of backstory that is hinted on but not entirely explained since this is book 3 in a series. Sully is interesting enough for me to pick up and read the first two books eventually, just so that I understand better what happened to the world before the big showdown in Hong Kong. 

I wasn’t in love with some of the author’s narrative choices though. For example, the constant jumping around the timeline was confusing and frustrating at times. I understand that the author wanted to fill in some gaps in Sully’s life after her miraculous recovery without giving too much away at the beginning of the book, but to me, that kills the tension. Here we are, in Hong Kong, the epicenter of an epic battle and Sully’s life is at stake… then we jump back 5 years and see her talking to some random character in New Amsterdam. And probably a lot of the confusion is because I haven’t read the previous books, so I don’t know who those characters in flashback are. I’m sure regular readers enjoyed when some of them got their comeuppances, but to me, it fell flat. 

 My other problem was that there were simply too many players in this game and it took real effort to keep track of all of them and what they wanted, apart from the doll containing the demon. On the other hand, I’m interested enough to go back and read the first two installments. 

So all in all, great story and very interesting world. I will definitely revisit this to hopefully understand the story better.

PS: I received a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book of Night (Book of Night 1) by Holly Black

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

This is an interesting first book in an exciting new urban fantasy series. I will definitely follow this author for updates. 

I especially loved the magic system and the magic world. It is different from the common werewolves/vampires/witches or fairies, etc. fare. Here we have normal humans all around, only some of them have quickened shadows that allow them to perform feats that can be considered magic. The system has limitations and the magical abilities of the shadows are specialized. And the shadow quickening requires life energy, mostly in the form of blood. Usually, the practitioner feeds the shadow with small amounts of his/her own blood, but more unscrupulous ones have been known to resort to blood sacrifices.

I also liked our protagonist. She is flawed and, in some ways, a total screw-up. But considering her upbringing, I am surprised she manages to be a more or less functioning human being at all. Yes, Charlie is a screw-up that is known for notoriously bad choice, especially when it comes to men she dates. But she is also very good at her chosen profession, even if this profession is a thief and con artist. Charlie is at her best when she is the Charlatan. Her life might be in shambles, but when she is working a job, she possesses magic of her own, which consists of good instincts and a visceral knowledge of people’s behavior. 

I am definitely interested in sticking around for a bit and explore this world more in the next books, but the story itself was a little underwhelming, once we got past the awesome worldbuilding and into the meat of the intrigue. 

Fist of all, it’s confusing and the motivation behind some of the things the different characters do is thin to non-existent. For example, why did the Hierophant kill that guy in the alley in the beginning of the book? If the main villain knew that the book of shadows wasn’t lost at all, why send the Hierophant after the guy who claimed to have it? 

And speaking of the villain, what was his end game exactly? Yes, he is evil. Yes, he is depraved. Yes, he is power-hungry. But what is it that he was trying to accomplish here? It’s never fully explained. Besides, as far as moustache-swirling villains go, he is so evil it’s bordering on ridiculous. 

Another problem here is that apart from Charlie, the characterizations of all the other people in this book are thin at best, even cliched. There isn’t a single memorable character. Even the cat was blah, which is a big let down for a cat lover. 

All in all however, I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, so I will definitely be willing to give book 2 a try as well. Hopefully now that the setup and worldbuilding is out of the way, the story and characterization can take the front seat. 

PS: I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Folklorn by Mi Young Hur

Stars: 3 out of 5

I have mixed feelings about this book and a lot of difficulty putting them in to a structured review. So I apologize in advance if this looks more like a stream of consciousness on paper than a review.

First of all, this book appealed to me because I am also an immigrant, not once, but twice. And when my parents immigrated the first time, I was only five years old. So a lot of the themes raised in this book are achingly familiar. The sense of disconnect from your original culture and the difficulty assimilating into the new one. That state of in-betweenness, where you don’t quite understand where you belong, and you don’t have any real role models. Where your family rules and traditions often clash with what you learn in school. Where both cultures seem foreign at times.

Though I must admit that I didn’t get quite as much grief for being different as the protagonist did, because I was still a white girl in a predominantly Caucasian country, even if I had a funny accent and an unpronounceable last name. 

I also don’t come from a culture where familiar bonds and filial piety are taken to such an extreme. The amount of abuse and manipulation the protagonist takes from her parents, and from her brother, even to a lesser degree, is just staggering. Yet she keeps coming back to them despite (and sometimes because) of that abuse. This is toxic and destructive for the soul and psychological wellbeing of everyone involved. And as a non-Korean I couldn’t’ really understand why Elsa was willing to forgive all that abuse.

I think my biggest issue with this book is how passive Elsa is with her grief. Yes, we all have different copping mechanisms, but Elsa’s seems to be retreating into herself and not doing anything until the situation resolves itself or something prompts her into action. She compulsively reviews her mother’s stories and takes her father’s abuse in stride. Oh, and she self-medicates with her brother’s anti-psychotic drugs. 

I don’t know if reluctance to seek professional help is another cultural thing, but Elsa is smart, she should see the classic symptoms of depression. Why not reach out to seek help? I bet she has an excellent health plan through the university. For fear of how others would see her? For fear of appearing weak to other people’s eyes? 

I think this is where Elsa and I are fundamentally different. Where I assimilated into my adoptive culture better I guess. Because I understand her reluctance. In my native culture talking about mental health is also still a stigma and a taboo. There is no such thing as depression. You just need to go for a walk and have a good night’s sleep and get over it. And if that’s not working, you aren’t trying hard enough. Yeah… no wonder Russians drink so much… Anyway, even though I understand that reluctance, I don’t share it, because I grew up in a culture where mental health is just as important than physical health and seeking professional help for both is considered normal…

Those differences aside, I still think this is a fascinating story of family abuse, loss and cultural stigma and the exploration of Korean myths and spiritual believes was extremely well done.

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

Wakers (The Side Step Trilogy 1) by Orson Scott Card

Stars: 2 out of 5.

DNF at 70%, so you darn right I’m leaving a review for this, since I put so much effort into this book!

I am very disappointed. I loved The Ender’s Game by the same author so I had high hope for this story as well. 

And the beginning was pretty good actually: intriguing and suspenseful. I was along for the ride with Laz, and even his constant monologue and the tendency to over-analyze every little thing to death wasn’t all that annoying at first. He was looking for answers, after all, and we, as the reader were looking for them with him. Yes, the pacing was rather slow, but I was willing to forgive that as long as I got the answers I was looking for in the end.

Then Laz finally wakes up Ivy… and things took a nosedive from there. 

First of all, the pace, which was already slow, became glacial. I mean the story progression grinded to a halt to be replaced by pages and pages of mindless and mind-numbing dialogue between two obnoxious teenagers. It was pointless. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t bring ANYTHING useful to the story. It made my eyes roll back in my head and make me want to take a nap every time I opened the book. It’s an endless stream of verbal vomit between two people who I found more and more unlikeable the further in the book I got. 

Because most of the book is written in these horrible dialogues, the author does a lot of telling, but almost no showing. The characters debate scientific theories, explain to each other things that should be self-evident for them just so the reader can catch up with the science here. Problem is, the reader has checked out ten pages ago. 

I got no sense of the world, because the descriptions are almost non-existent. It’s all just Laz made a snide remark, Ivy retorted with something the author meant to sound smart, but just made her sound like a spoiled brat, Laz retaliated in the same fashion, blah, blah, blah…. twenty pages later we still haven’t learned anything new and the story hasn’t progressed an inch. Heck, I don’t even know what the dogs in the pack of four look like because mighty Laz didn’t care enough about it to talk about it.

I understand that this is a YA book, but I still didn’t particularly appreciate how all adults are described as complete idiots. Seriously, Laz and Ivy have this “better then everyone else” attitude to them when they talk to anybody else that would never have worked in the real world. You might be smart and possess a unique ability, but you are still a teenager, no you are a clone with fake memories, so if you talk to me this way, you will get smacked. I think that’s my biggest pet peeve with the author’s approach – you CAN create smart and resourceful teenagers without making them disrespectful at the same time. 

It made me hate the main characters more and more, and by the end I didn’t care about them or finding the answers to the big questions enough to read through the last 30% of obnoxious dialogue.

I will not continue with the series. I will definitely not recommend this book. And if this is the author’s new style of writing, I doubt I will try any of his newer book going forward. I’d rather re-read the Ender’s Game.

PS: I received a free copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Shadow Shinjuku by Ryu Takeshi

 Stars: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time formulating my thoughts about this book. I liked it enough to stick around till the end, but it didn’t leave a big enough impact to consider it a really good book. 

There is one aspect I really loved, and that’s Tokyo as a whole and Shinjuku in particular. The author does a really good job describing the city, the atmosphere, the sights, the people who live in it. So much so that the city feels like its own entity and an integral part of the story. As an avid traveler who had been cooped up way to long because of Covid, I loved the chance to travel to a different place at least in my mind. And since I had visited Tokyo in 2018, some of the places described were familiar, like old friends.

Unfortunately, you need more than the atmosphere and a good description of the setting to make a good book. You also need a good story and engaging characters. In my opinion, this book is lacking in both those aspects. 

The story itself is not so bad. It’s about finding a purpose in life and a place where you belong. About family, both found and inherited. However, it starts really slow and meanders around aimlessly for over half of the book, just like Sato does. In fact, it doesn’t really pick up pace until about 60% into the book when the stuff with Kiki happens and Sato finally decides to do something apart from procrastinating.

And that is my second gripe with this book. Sato was just too passive a character to qualify for the role of a protagonist. As I mentioned, he spends over half the book just floating with the current, not engaged with the world at all, just observing it from the shadows. And I understand why the author wrote him this way and fully appreciate his transformation by the end of the book, but it really makes for a boring character to follow.

Also, since Sato doesn’t particularly care about any members of his “found family” for half the book, I found it hard to care for them as well. The bonds haven’t been established or properly showcased beforehand, so when bad things start to happen to them, there isn’t this sense of urgency and outrage that I should be feeling. In fact, I empathized with the dog more than I did with any other characters in this book, so that says something.

All in all, this was an interesting story and a good glimpse into a different culture. It would have been better if Sato had been more involved with the world around him from the get go.

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

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater

 Stars: 5 out of 5

I absolutely loved this book, y’all! This gave me the same vibes as American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett, only with a much more reliable protagonist. 

Sadie’s mother was the Liar of Red Valley. A position that gave her a certain power with its inhabitants. They didn’t like her, they certainly didn’t trust her, but they still came to her and paid for her to tell lies on their behalf. But now she is dead, and Sadie needs to figure out how to become the next Liar. She also needs to find her mom’s ledger, keep all the other ledgers safe, oh, and save Red Valley from total destruction. No worries.

As I said, this book is what is often referred to as American weird. The world is very much like our own, but certain things lurk in the shadows that are not human. The people of Red Valley know about them, and they also know the rules that let everybody coexist more or less peacefully. Newcomers though… well, either they learn, or they don’t. The things in the shadows have to be fed from time to time too, after all.

I liked the atmosphere of Red Valley. This could be any run-down town in the American heartland. I drove through a lot of those. Closed and boarded up businesses on Main street, a couple cafes and diners barely surviving on local and sometimes tourist traffic, a few jobs supporting the local Walmart, drugs, alcohol, despair for the rest of the residents. The fact that there are some supernatural elements to this setup isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, what do we know about those other crumbling town all over our nation? All we see when we drive through are boarded up windows. There might be their own kinds of weird residents staring at us from within. 

Most of my enjoyment with this book came from following Sadie. She is a great protagonist right from the start. She is relatable. She is very human, even when faced with hard situations. I loved her and rooted for her from the get go. And I loved her even more once I discovered a few things about her that I won’t talk about because I don’t want to spoil it.

The book is also well-written. There is plenty of tension and the story moves at a good pace. It’s not so fast that the reader doesn’t have time to get to know the characters or take a breather between action scenes. It is also not so slow that the reader would get bored. All the information about Red Valley is introduced in measured dozes and exactly when needed, without resorting to the dreaded info-dumps. 

All in all, this is one my favorite books I read in 2022 so far and I highly recommend it.

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

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next 1) by Jasper Fforde

Stars: 5 out of 5

 I have a difficult time describing this book other than that I absolutely loved it! It’s well written and engaging, and the world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’m not sure how to classify it. Is it alternate history? Is it urban fantasy? Is it steampunk? Or maybe a little bit of both and none of them at the same time? You see what I mean?

Thursday Next is a Litera Agent who investigates all sorts of literary crimes, which include forgery, book theft and other, more fantastical occurrences, like the kidnapping of famous literary characters straight out of a book and into the real world… or the disappearance of a real person into a book. Yes, things like that happen in Thursday’s world.

And what an interesting world it is. An alternate history Europe where the Crimean war never ended. Where there was no Russian revolution, and airplanes were never invented because why invent something new when blimps work perfectly fine? So it is a weird world that is similar to our in some ways (telephones, cars, etc.), but very different in others: it has a ChronoGuard branch of SpecOps after all, so time travel and time manipulation is a common practice. People use credit cards, but the names of the banks are as foreign to us as if they were written in Chinese. And names like Jack Shitt, Victor Analogy or Thursday Next are common and perfectly normal.

In fact, I could help but think that while Thursday was investigating book theft and manipulation of written narrative, her own world was also a book. Which, ironically, it is. I’m reading it. And it’s so fun to see the author kind of playing with this idea, even if it’s never mentioned. Usually writers try to make their created worlds convincing, so that the readers can get lost exploring this brand new plane of existence at their leisure and forget that they are reading a book. Don’t get me wrong, Thursday’s world is convincing. It has an inner logic. But it’s also very “bookish”. And it’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a very fun and wild ride.

Part of my enjoyment for this book is due to our protagonist. Thursday Next is an awesome character! She is flawed and deeply wounded by her time fighting in Crimea. She can be stubborn and unyielding, but she is also smart and has a lot of heart. I was really rooting for her from the beginning. Plus, she has a pet dodo. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with a pet dodo! I am glad that Thursday managed to resolve some of her issues by the end of this book, even if that resolution was a little bit on the nose for me.

That might be the only small gripe for me – the villain in this book was very, almost comic-book, villainous. But that works well with the idea that Thursday’s world is also a book, so while I would have loved to have a little more depth to Hades’ character, he worked well for the story.

There are plenty of other interesting characters in this book that don’t get enough spotlight, in my opinion. And judging how well-written this book is, my thought is that they will be covered in the next books. Like we mention Spike and his job policing the vampire and werewolf population, but this isn’t expanded upon. Thursday acts like the existence of supernatural beings is common knowledge in this world, but again, the reader doesn’t get any other explanation. Hopefully, we will explore this aspect of the world more in subsequent books, because I quite like Spike.

There is also the case of Thursday seeing her older self in a rather bad situation and stashing a gun for her other self  to use. That scene doesn’t happen in the timeline of the first book, so I can only hope that this is something significant to the plot in the next instalments. 

All in all, I absolutely loved this book and I will definitely read the next book in the series just to see more of this crazy world and what happens to Thursday.

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

It pains me to give a less than stellar rating to Max Gladstone, but this is the first book of his I’ve been disappointed with. How can a book about found family, road trip, end of the world, parallel universes and so on be so… boring?

I loved this author’s Craft series. They are wonderfully imaginative and full of interesting characters and thought provoking concepts. So of course I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of this through NetGalley. And my initial state while I was reading this book, before the boredom set in, was that of bewilderment. Is this the author who wowed me with his other books? Am I reading this wrong? What is going on?

Oh, there are glimpses of the author I love in this story. There are moments that are tightly written and intensely terrifying. Like when the Cowboy first becomes aware of Sarah on the interstate, or the confrontation at the Best Western, or when Zelda is in the bug-infested tunnels under an alt New York. Those scenes had me at the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat, terrified for the well-being of the characters…

Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between. And they are bogged down by pages and pages of flashbacks, introspections, inner dialog about how miserable the characters are and how they think that the world is ending. It’s self-pity and self-recrimination on page upon page upon page. So you get this brilliant scene when the action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and the characters in danger… then you have 50 pages of inner monolog topped with a flashback on their first journey. Momentum – shot dead, not by the cowboy in a white hat, but by sheer boredom. In fact, I think that the book is at least 200 pages too long. My Kindle assured me that it was 400 pages long, but it felt like one of those 1000+ pages door stoppers – never-ending.

I think this approach would have worked if I cared for any of the characters, but I didn’t. They are all unlikeable, selfish people who wear their failures like a badge of honor and wallow in self-pity for most of the book. And since the reader has to follow them and be privy to their most inner thoughts, it makes for a very painful read, and not in a good way. 

Also, it is constantly hinted that their first journey to find the crossroads went horribly wrong and resulted in Sal’s downfall, but the book drags the actual story over pages and pages of hints and self-pity. By the time we actually learn what happened it feels… anti-climatic? I was like, “So all this misery is because of this? Are you kidding me?” Not a good thing when Sal’s downfall and Zelda’s guilt about it are the cornerstone of this story. 

By the end of the book I was so bored with the story, that I just skimmed through the last 10%. Also not good. The ending is supposed to be rewarding. It’s supposed to justify the effort the reader put into sticking with 400 pages of story. It was anything but that. And the big reveal and twist wasn’t all that shocking either. 

When I had finished the other books of this author, I had a sense of satisfaction and joy. I had wanted to savor the story, to re-read passages that I liked the most. When I finished Last Exit, all I had is a sense of relief that the slog was finally over and that I could delete the ARC from my Kindle. 

I will not recommend this book. Max Gladstone is a wonderful author though, so I suggest you read his Craft series instead. 

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I’m always eager to discover new voices in literature, especially if they come from other cultures. Those authors always have very unique outlooks at life that you won’t find in our Western civilizations. It definitely broadens my horizon as a reader. So I was very eager to pick up this book when I saw it on NetGalley – a translation of an new Japanese author, and we have a talking cat who saves books? What is there not to like?

Well, the writing, as it turns out. 

The story itself is interesting and rather uplifting – we follow Rintaro, a very shy and introverted high school student, who is trying to deal with the sudden death of his grandfather, who had been his only family for all these years. It doesn’t help that Rintaro is a literal shut-in with severe social anxiety, and that the safe bubble that he’d built in his grandfather’s bookshop is about to burst. Then a talking cat appears and takes him on a fantastical adventure to save books and find his own voice. By the end of the journey, Rintaro finally discovers his own value and decides what he wants to do in life. 

It is a nice coming of age story that would definitely appeal to a younger audience… and a book I would never have picked up if I’d known it was aimed at the younger adult audience. I don’t read YA. This book just reaffirmed all the reasons why I don’t. 

The writing, as I had mentioned earlier, is simplistic at best. I don’t know if it’s due to so many nuances getting lost in translation, as they inevitably do, or if the original was written this way as well. It might have been, if it was intended for a 12+ audience, even if it was classified as General Fiction (Adult) on NetGalley.

Problem with this book is that it does a lot of telling and almost zero showing. Everything has to be spelled out for the reader. We are told how Rintaro feels and what he thinks of his few friends or people he encounters, but there is nothing in the writing that shows these reactions. It might also be that the author is Japanese, so he relies on Japanese stereotypes that would be familiar to a younger Japanese audience, but that are rather foreign to us. For example, Sayo, the class representative, came across as pushy, rude, and judgmental of Rintaro every time I read about her… Yet, he admires her for being a straight talker and very dedicated to her duties. And he just takes her verbal abuse like it’s normal. 

Another problem is that I can’t even visualize these characters. What does Rintaro look like? His only distinctive feature are his glasses that he likes to fiddle with. Same for Sayo. She could be any other Japanese high school student from the street and it wouldn’t make a difference. Or Akiba? Heck, the only character who gets a real description is Tiger the cat. Maybe that’s normal for Japanese novels. Maybe relying on common stereotypes is good enough for that audience. Me, it just left me rather bored. I felt like I was following a shadow play on the wall, where characters are blank cutouts. 

So all in all, it really wasn’t my cup of tea, even if it gave me a peak, of sorts, into the life of an insecure teenage boy living in a second hand book store somewhere in Japan. I wanted a bit more than that though, but it was probably just a matter of managing my expectations.

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