Category Archives: Urban fantasy

A Plain-Dealing Villain (Daniel Faust 4) by Craig Schaefer

Stars: 4 out of  5.

I think this series is getting better with each new book, which is an exciting occurrence. I’ve seen too many series putter out after the first few books because the author didn’t plan the overarching arc well enough or just ran out of ideas, but has contracted to write more books. I’m glad to say that it’s not the case here. It really feels like there is a solid plan behind these books and things that seemed unimportant or barely mentioned in previous books suddenly come to play in the next books. I like it when I can trust the author to take me for a wild ride and not loose sight of the destination.

My only compliant here is that it starts a bit slow, with an aborted robbery and way too much time being interrogated/shadowed by Harmony Black in the beginning of the book. Once Faust arrives in Chicago and the action picks up, the book become a lot more interesting. 

What I have noticed is that I only truly get invested in these books when the gang is all together. Daniel Faust by himself tends to charge in without thinking, make a complete mess of the situation, then try to fix what he broke in the first place. Like Pixie told him in this book, you never fix anything, you just try to mitigate the damage. The true magic happens when Cormy and Mama Margaux and Pixie and even Caitlin are there to help him. That’s when the cons come to life, that’s when the books become an adrenaline-packed ride. And it’s a true joy to watch them work together, help each other, trust each other and pull of seemingly impossible things. 

I am also glad that the insta-love between Faust and Caitlin is finally qustioned in this book. I’ve been saying since book one that this felt unnatural to me, and it seems that I’m right. I hope this gets further development in future books, because this is the definition of a toxic relationship – when one of the participants is basically manipulated into feeling what he does. I don’t care about justifications or that Caitlin loves him too now, this relationship started with a lie. This at least needs to be addressed between them if there is any future in this.

There are some interesting new plotlines to explore in future books, like the looming hostile takeover of Las Vegas by the Chicago Outfit, which would definitely be a bloody affair. And of course this new shadowy figure pulling the ropes behind the latest heist. Who is he and what is his end goal? What kind of ritual are his minions preparing for? And how will Daniel clear his name from the murder he’s been framed for, and will he do it in time to help his friends?

I am definitely picking up the next book in the series.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Stars: 5 out of 5

I am continuing my dive into my TBR list. This book was languishing on my list since 2014, and I’m really not sure why I didn’t read it sooner. I even had the ebook on my Kindle and all that… Anyway, I finally got to it and I’m happy that I did.

Neil Gaiman is an absolute master at writing books about children that are interesting for both children and adults. I loved his Coraline and the Graveyard book. They were engrossing and at times horrifying, but also very genuine. Same happened with this book. 

The author has a rare gift of capturing the magic of childhood without turning it into something extraordinary. In fact, the very ordinary way he describes some rather extraordinary (and often terrifying) things that happen to his characters is what makes his books so impactful. This books brings me back to my childhood, when the world was new and I didn’t know the rules, so even most ordinary places could be magical doorways to other world. A tree in the backyard could be a castle and the pond at the end of the lane could be an ocean.

Children see a lot more then adults do, because they haven’t accepted the norms society and adulthood imposes on them yet, and adults readers should be reminded that there still wonders in this world that science and technology cannot explain. And that those wonders aren’t good or evil, they just are. They behave in accordance to their nature, and they don’t particularly care about human norms and rules, so interacting with them is always a gamble.

I loved that our protagonist is just a little boy who loves to read and is more comfortable in his own imaginary world with his books than with other children. He isn’t a genius. He isn’t the chosen one. He is just a kid who stumbles into something extraordinary and tries to cope with it the best he can. He isn’t particularly brave or strong, but he has enough courage to stand up for himself and say it when the situation doesn’t feel right. And standing up to an adult, especially if that adult is your parent, is the most terrifying thing in the world when you are a child. Most of us forget that when we grow up. 

That’s why the most terrifying experience in this whole story wasn’t even Ursula or the hunger birds. It was the fact that his father tried to drown him in the bathtub. Whether he was enthralled by Ursula or she’d just played on his baser instincts doesn’t matter. When the person who is supposed to protect and support you tries to kill you, it shatters something inside of you. I’m glad the Hempstock snipped that night out of his memories.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about the fact that the extraordinary lives next door to us, you just have to look carefully for it. Question is, do you really want to venture down that lane?

The Best Thing You Can Steal (Gideon Sable 1) by Simon R Green

Stars: 3 out of 5

I love me a good heist and I am always excited to read about London in urban fantasy. It’s such an ancient and wonderful city that adding a magical element only adds to it’s fascination. So I dived into this series without reservation and read this book in a day. 

So what’s my verdict? It’s popcorn stuff. It’s a fun little romp through a fictional magical London, full of action and never a dull moment… It’s also pretty light on substance. I mean the whole book is about introducing the team, then explaining the plan, then executing the heist. Pretty straightforward.

And that’s the biggest drawback of this story, I think – I would expect a plan to fail, things to go wrong forcing the team to improvise. And while it does a little, none of the drawbacks seem dangerous or earthshattering. Ultimately, the plan goes exactly as formulated in our protagonist’s head. I never worried about the characters being in danger, because they really weren’t.

Part of the issue is that all of the characters are so overpowered that it’s hard to imagine that anything can truly hurt them. I mean the Damned has the armor of angels. The Wild Card can alter reality as it pleases him. The Ghost is a ghost, so bullets can’t hurt him. The only real humans are Anny Anybody and our protagonist, but the author never puts them in real danger. 

Finally, the villain himself is rather underwhelming all things considered. We spend the whole book building him up as this ruthless horrible person, someone extremely overpowered and who is in possession of unimaginable artifacts… What we get at the end is a mustache-swirling Bond villain who monologues about how villainous he is for about 10 pages, then gets beaten by a McGuffin. 

As I said, don’t read this book if you are looking for a memorable villain and edge of your seat action with high stakes and life and death situations. However, if you are looking for a quick read to take to the beach with you or to your morning commute – this definitely fits the bill. And while I seem critical, I did like it well enough to continue with the series. 

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Stars: 3 out of 5.

I feel bad giving this book less than a stellar rating, because it raises some pretty important issues about inclusion and the casual mistreatment of those who are different. It also talks about trauma and healing and finding your purpose in life. So all the things that should be right up my alley, right? Yes this book left me pretty much cold. 

I see several problems with the narrative that made it so this book didn’t work for me.

First, there is too much going on. There are demons ready to buy your soul and the competitive world of violin music. There are aliens escaping the collapse of a distant civilization. There is a traumatized transgender kid who is trying to find her way in this world that has never showed her kindness. There is the Queen of Hell, who already damned the souls of six of her most brilliant violin students and only need to collect one more to buy back her own.

On each own, all these stories would make a wonderful book. Reading about Katrina finding her own voice and melting the Queen of Hell’s heart in the process would have been wonderful. Reading about Lan Thran building a new life on Earth for her family and finding a modicum of happiness. And also realizing that music might be just the thing that could heal the soul of her dying civilization. Or even reading about the strange and cutthroat world of violin competitions and the violin repair shop owner who had the power to repair and exorcise cursed violins. And it is also a story about immigrants and refugees who are trying to rebuild a life on distant shores, as demonstrated by the Asian diaspora in California. 

Unfortunately, mashing them all together into the same narrative did a disservice to all of the stories. First, it felt like a clash of ideas, but more importantly, there wasn’t enough time to develop each story to the extent that it needed to be developed. There were too many characters to keep track of, as a result, almost none of them felt fleshed out. I could honestly say that the only two characters that felt “alive” to me were Katrina and Shirley. Ironic, isn’t it, considering Shirley is an AI?

As it stands, I felt like all the stories were underdeveloped then forcibly woven together to create a happy ending. 

Also, I found that for a book that seemingly had such high stakes – the souls of two women in jeopardy, aliens fleeing the destruction of their civilization, etc. I never felt any urgency in the narrative. We are told that the stakes are high, but we aren’t shown that. Apart from that last competition where Katrina plays her heart out, I never felt like any of the characters were in real danger. 

It might also be because violence is glossed over or threated with a passing shrug and nothing else in this story. Katrina is raped by her roommate and it is barely mentioned afterwards. I mean, she was betrayed by someone she trusted, yet again, but we will not dwell into that? Or when Lan’s son casually kills a civilian and then Lan just disintegrates his friends so that they wouldn’t go to the police? There is no aftermath for her for that. Oh, we just killed four people. Oh well, moving on. That felt very callous to me, especially in a story that talks about how music can heal our souls.

The ending is also something I didn’t like about this book. I understand the author’s desire to end the story on a good note, to create a happy ever after ending. Unfortunately, it cheapens Katrina’s sacrifice and self-realization during the violin competition, and also Shizuka’s real sacrifice after it, when she chose to forfeit her soul instead of damning Katrina. Shizuka was bound to Hell. That was the choice and the sacrifice she’d willingly made. It would have made for a heart-breaking, but beautiful ending of the book. One that I would have remembered and praised. Getting her out of that bargain by cope out space aliens was wrong, in my opinion. It sends the message that no matter what horrible things you did in your life, you can always escape punishment if you have the right friends. 

I would also argue that the way this book treated Katrina’s trauma was very “fairy tale” ending as well. She has severe PTSD from all the abuse she’d suffered from her family and those around her. She has self-loathing and self-image issues. Winning one competition and finding her music won’t solve all that. Finding one person who loves and support you helps, but doesn’t eliminate the trauma. Katrina needs serious therapy and years of work and recovery to be whole. Yet that part is completely glossed over. 

So yes, I like all the ideas in this book and a deep dive into violins and music was fascinating. I just didn’t particularly like how they were blended together in this book. 

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

The Golden Enclaves (The Scholomance 3) by Naomi Novik

Stars: 3 out of 5

This book, even though it was a satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy, felt less well structured than the previous two. Also, it dragged. Hence the 3 star rating where the previous two books were solid 5 stars for me. 

I think my biggest problem is that this book spends too much time spinning its wheels. We pick up right after the awful events at the end of book 2. El is safe. El is back home with her mom, but El’s world has crumbled. She is traumatized by the events of the graduation. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She is depressed. So she spends a lot of time mopping around. Granted, that was very true to El’s character, since she tends to overanalyze everything to death and circle around the drain, but it makes for rather boring reading. 

I also felt that the middle part of the book dragged and lost its focus a bit. Yes, we learned some big revelations, especially about the correlation between mawmouths and enclave creation, but it felt like we were retreading the same ground again and again after the attack on London. The whole middle part could easily have been condensed and made more fast-paced and exciting without loosing any of the impactful reveals and character development. This is the first time in this series that I was tempted to skip forward and just skim through the pages. 

I loved the confrontation at the gates of the Scholomance. It really felt like this was the culmination of all the threads so carefully set up in the previous books. This was the culmination of Orion’s story. Of the mawmouths and the enclaves, and of the Scholomance itself. I think it would have been a better book if the author had decided to end it right there and then. Unfortunately, she didn’t…

I understand that she wanted to leave her character for a happy-ish ending, but it felt rather forced and shoehorned into what was a rather bleak story at times. I liked how Orion’s arc was resolved at the gates of Scholomance. I would have been happy with him being bound to the school, because that’s what El and all of the wizards had asked of him and the school itself – stay and protect our children. The fact that suddenly he can travel freely everywhere he wants and still has his ability to “eat” mals even though El killed the mawmouth inside him… it feels like a cheep copout. It cheapens the sacrifices and hard decisions both had to make during the battle of Scholomance. 

I also wasn’t completely happy with the solution they found for the enclaves. It’s not sustainable in the long run. After all, El is not immortal. One day she will be gone and there will be nobody there to kill the mawmouths. And yes, people will always choose the path of least resistance if they can. Building Golden Enclaves is harder than normal ones and requires more mana investments from the builders. So give it a generation, and wizards will revert to building modern enclaves again. 

In order to get rid of that practice, there needs to be a huge shift in how people think. Unfortunately, I don’t think the ending of this book laid a good enough foundation for that. So this is a hollow victory, because nothing has really changed. Which is a little disappointing.

It was still a good read though. All in all, I liked El’s growth and emotional journey and the fact that she finally found a modicum of peace.

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance 2) by Naomi Novik

Stars: 5 out of 5

This is an excellent continuation of the Scholomance series. It picks up moments after the end of book one and its ominous warning and leaves El and her friends with a plethora of new problems. The most pressing of which is getting ready for graduation. They all know what is waiting for them down in the graduation hall and that not all of them will make it out alive. It’s time to form alliances and play your cards right. Because surviving graduation is only the first step. If you are lucky enough, you might also get a spot in an enclave after.

I loved El’s character growth in this book. Her slow realization that she had friends she can rely on. And her bigger realization that surviving graduation on her own isn’t enough anymore. She also wants to make sure her friends survive. And most of the other graduates as well, even if some of them are from enclaves, but she is finding out that they are good people after all, flawed, entitles, clueless as to how life is for non-enclavers, but not intrinsically bad. 

It was also interesting to see her progressively feel more and more responsible for the first years that she had to have classes with. To come to the realization that they would have to deal with graduation as well in four years, and that the cleaning measures they had repaired might break again before their graduation. And if that happened, they would have to face a room full of hungry mals and no El or Orion to protect them… El is finally learning how to care about people other than herself and it’s a wonderful thing to see. That’s character growth at its best. 

The stakes felt real in this book as well. Graduation is coming whether our characters want it or not, and they have to work together to survive it. I loved how this idea slowly dawned on everybody and how people finally started cooperating. And that when El came up with her insane plan, mostly everyone backed her up. Granted, the fact that the Scholomance itself was actively encouraging them to be useful was a good inciting factor as well.

Speaking of the Scholomance, loved the revelation that the school was, if not sentient, then at least aware. That all these years, it’s been trying to fulfill its purpose the best it could, even with failing security measures and cleaning spells in the graduation hall. Even if that meant mercilessly training the kids in its charge so that they stood at least a chance to survive graduation. Even if that meant paring the week and feeding them to the mals, so that the strong had a better chance at making it out alive. I mean what an impossible conundrum – it’s tasked to protect all the gifted children of the world… and is forced to make tough choices to protect at least some of them.

The ending was heartbreaking. I really hope that we haven’t seen the last of Orion. On a different note, I love that this didn’t evolve like the typical YA love story.  In fact, romantic interests are the least of our characters problems in this series so far. Sure, they pair up, do the typical teenage things, but it’s not the focus of the story, and I’m glad about it.

All in all, I’m loving this series so far. It’s a well-constructed world with complex characters that you can’t help but empathize with. 

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance 1) by Naomi Novik

Stars: 5 out of 5

This is not your ordinary magic academy book. In fact, I doubt Harry Potter would have survived past the first night in Scholomance, because he wouldn’t have been an enclave kid, but just a looser like El. 

In fact, the world of Scholomance is rather bleak and unforgiving. Being a wizard isn’t something to be excited about, unless you have the privilege to be born in an enclave. Eighty percent of wizard children born outside of enclaves don’t survive to puberty, yet alone adulthood. Why? Because they are considered tasty treats for the myriads of mals roaming the world, looking for a snack. And a kid who barely started manifesting his magic doesn’t have the skills to defend themselves from the mals. So the solution was to create the Scholomance – a magical school that would also serve as shelter for those children lucky enough to be chosen to attend. They would have four years to learn and hone their skills. All they had to do was survive the graduation. Sure, people died there as well, but the survival rates were a lot higher than risking it on your own in the outside world instead.

This paints a grim picture doesn’t it? It’s also a fascinating take on a secluded magical community leaving alongside normal human population, or “mundanes” as they call them. I also loved the explanation why it was so much harder to do magic when surrounded by normal people. The idea of belief influencing the potency of spells is rather unique. 

Oh, and our protagonist is no Harry Potter either. Well, scratch that. She kind of is, I guess? In the sense that she is a chosen one and has a whole prophecy about her. Granted the prophecy goes along the lines of doom and gloom and bringing death to all enclaves. No wonder she is bitter and distrustful. No wonder she is a loner who assumes the worst of people. It also doesn’t help that most of the spells she gets from the school are spells of mass destruction or subjugation, as befitted a Dark Overlord… which she desperately doesn’t want to be. Add all that, and El is a bundle of bitterness with a soft mushy core under all that armor. She is a delight to follow in her slow progression from a loner to someone who finds a purpose and even real friends.

The concept of mana vs malia is also rather unique. I don’t often encounter this conundrum in other books about magic, but if you think about it, it makes sense – you can’t create something out of nothing. So any spell you cast has to be fueled by something. Mana is the fuel you build on your own. Malia is something you syphon out of the world around you – animals, plants… other people. It’s easy to get and you can have an almost unlimited pool of it… if you decide to be evil. Of course, prolonged use of malia corrupts your soul and body, and you risk having your insides rot in the long run, but it gives you a lot of power before that happens.

I found the whole concept of Scholomance fascinating. A school with no adult supervision, no teachers, no vacations. You get in via portal and you get out four years later, if you survive the mals in the school and the Graduation. Between then – the school teaches you by providing books and classes that it thinks you might need. And don’t even think about not completing homework on falling behind on your classes. First, you won’t be allowed in the dinning hall… then accidents will start happen. In other words – you learn or you die. I’d say that staying alive is the best motivation a student could need.

I am glad I was recommended this book. Even though it’s classified as YA, and yes, it has some typical YA elements, it lacks those that I despise the most: inta-love, love triangles, and protagonists too entitled or too stupid to live. This book is smart, intriguing and you can’t help but root for the characters even if El tends to get stuck on her grievances a lot and seems to run in circles before making a decision. But she is what, 16 in this book? So I would give her some slack.

All in all, I am really looking forward to diving in deeper into this world in the next book. And I will certainly check out other books by this author.

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.