Night Watch (Watch #1) – Sergei Lukyanenko

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Summary:

Others. They walk among us. Observing.

Set in contemporary Moscow, where shape shifters, vampires, and street-sorcerers linger in the shadows, Night Watch is the first book of the hyper-imaginative fantasy pentalogy from best-selling Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

This epic saga chronicles the eternal war of the “Others,” an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of the Dark – the Night Watch – oversee nocturnal activity, while the agents of the Light keep watch over the day. For a thousand years both sides have maintained a precarious balance of power, but an ancient prophecy has decreed that a supreme Other will one day emerge, threatening to tip the scales. Now, that day has arrived. When a mid-level Night Watch agent named Anton stumbles upon a cursed young woman – an uninitiated Other with magnificent potential – both sides prepare for a battle that could lay waste to the entire city, possible the world. With language that throbs like darkly humorous hard-rock lyrics about blood and power, freedom and responsibility, Night Watch is a chilling, cutting-edge thriller, a pulse-pounding ride of fusion fiction that will leave you breathless for the next installment.

Review:

This is one of those books where the things that make it interesting also make it frustrating.

It is a refreshing change to read a story about a man who is not the hero and can never be the hero. It is also depressing when you are constantly being reminded that he is nothing but a pawn, knows it, hates it, and yet mostly accepts it because he sees little alternative.

There’s just something inherently depressing about this world; so much so that it makes it hard to keep a vested interest in the characters.

The book is not aided by a translation that, while assuredly faithful to the original as it can be, reads as very stilted as if the translator doesn’t understand that the meter and rhythms of the original language are only a hindrance here. There was nothing gained by refusing to soften the harshness of the style, is all.

Finally, the fact that this is not one story, but three shorts means that this feels like a loose collection of shorts that feel disconnected and only makes it that much harder to really ever gain any empathy for anyone.

This is one of those books you almost read out of academic interest because it feels so far removed from American urban fantasy. I’m not sad that I read it, but I also know I have no interest of looking at any of the other books in the series.

Verdict: Borrow it. This is very much a Your Mileage May Vary kind of book that’s hard to recommend at full price.

Available: Now

 

Age of Myth (The Legends of the First Empire #1) – Michael Sullivan

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Summary:

What does it mean if the gods can be killed? The first novel in an epic new fantasy series for readers of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, and Scott Lynch.

Michael J. Sullivan’s trailblazing career began with the breakout success of his Riyria series: full-bodied, spellbinding fantasy adventures whose imaginative scope and sympathetic characters won a devoted readership. Now, Sullivan’s stunning hardcover debut, Age of Myth, inaugurates an original five-book series, and one of fantasy’s finest next-generation storytellers continues to break new ground.

Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer, Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom, and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun.

Review:

Something about this book just doesn’t quite sit well with me, and it left me uneasy as I read this entire piece. Finally, I decided it was this: the juxtaposition of the vaguely Bronze-age Rhune versus the pure high fantasy Fhrey is an uneasy one, and the egotism in which the Fhrey see the Rhune (aka the humans) a mere rodens that are incapable of thought makes the latter seem almost like cartoonish. I get it: racism often lends itself to superiority complexes, but this takes it to near extreme levels. It doesn’t help that some characters somehow can speak the Fhrey tongue, but when in speaking with the Fhrey, that language comes off as broken enough to make Ralph Wiggum seem smart. I get that they wouldn’t fully understand it, but in combination with how the Fhrey see the Rhune, it just adds that extra layer of discomfort.

On the other hand, if there is one thing I thought Sullivan did quite well was the portrayal of gender politics in the book. Persephone is constantly in danger throughout this book, and in large part it was because she is a smart woman who commanded respect – unlike the man who took over after her husband died. Those tensions played off quite believably and honestly, it is her struggle that made the book worth reading. Although the Art was quite an interesting magic system, the disconnect between the two stories was so jarring, and the antagonists so cliched that they just didn’t feel like they belonged in this book.

Finally, in an author’s note at the start of the book, Sullivan mentions this book is set 3000 years before the events of the Riyria Chronicles. And honestly, I have to wonder why he would even bring it up. Yes, there is very much a tangential connection that will eventually come into play with the First Empire, but right now the two worlds are so completely and utterly disconnected that there may as well be no connection. Furthermore, this world feels so different from the ones in the other books (even beyond the obvious advancement in time) that it’s hard to see how the worlds are even connected. It might be one of those things that takes the five full books to bring to light, but for now at least, it leaves you going “these are connected, really?”

All told, I’m a bit torn on it, but if you like traditional fantasy at all, you might still want to give it a look. While problematic, it is interesting and I found myself engaged as I was reading it in a way I haven’t been for a lot of books lately. For that alone, I’d say it’s worth a look.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available: June 28

 

 

Buy It (Now!) The Crown’s Game – Evelyn Skye

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Summary:

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear . . . the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

Review:

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I loved this book. Loved. This is one of the rare books that was even better than the some of the hype implied.

First off, I loved all the characters major and minor. Everyone felt distinct and fleshed out, aside from one side character none of them felt cartoonish or over the top. I especially like the balance that Skye manages to achieve with Vika and Nikolai. Both of them want to want, both of them understand that success means the chance to live and that killing their competition is the best way to do that and so they really do try. At the same point in time, they have their humanity. They’re relieved when they fail. I think a lot of authors (especially YA authors) would have fallen into the trap of having one of them be like “I’m not going to play the Game! I’m not going to kill!” and she avoided that. I also liked how she acknowledged the political tensions of the time without turning it into a story where Vika joined the rebellion. She promised to serve the Tsar, and she will. It’s refreshing.

The magic was well done – evocative and enough of a framework to know the rules they are playing by, but not over-expained. It just comes off as exquisite and exquisitely done. I found myself looking forward to each Turn to see what they’d do next.

Finally, the pacing was spot on and the three main point of views all worked well making the book come together in a real elegant way.

My quibbles were few: there was a side-story with a character introduced late in the book that I don’t think ultimately added that much to the tale and I think she could have found another way to achieve the same end result. There was also a revelation at the end of the book straight out of the Book of YA Tropes that felt pointless. Really though, these were small and neither detracted anywhere near enough to consider not recommending this book.

This is a wonderful bit of fantasy that you should check out without second thought. Evelyn Skye is running a pre-order campaign that you can check out here if that’s your game. When I wrote this review, Amazon had it for $11.09, an absolute bargain, so go forth and pre-order!

Verdict: Buy It

Available: May 17th

 

Buy It: The Dark Days Club (Lady Helen #1) – Alison Goodman

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Summary:

London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears-and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

Review:

The Dark Days Club immediately got off to a good start by me for one very simple reason: Lady Helen liked being in Society. This is the first time in ages that I’ve picked up a YA historical fantasy and not have a girl bemoan her good luck at being born into the upper classes of Regency England. Rarely this desire is genuinely plot driven, but generally it seems to be more symptomatic of a modern writer imposing our modern views on a decidedly not modern time. Aside from the fact that marriage realistically was it for women back then, the truth was a lot of women look forward to getting married because the apron strings loosened and pressures eased. Once you were married, you had freedoms that you never had before (freedoms that even spinsters didn’t really get) and so it wasn’t so much a thing to look down on as a think to look forward to (albeit with trepidation in the event that you don’t like your intended, but that’s another story). But yeah, long story short: a heroine who likes who she is and where she is so much that down the road she considers giving up her family’s legacy to go back to it is genuinely refreshing. So well done there.

But I wouldn’t recommend it just for that, however. I like the character of Helen. She’s bright and curious, but not overly done (again, women of this time period weren’t all that well educated), she’s likable, not overly headstrong and she weighs the pros and cons before she makes a decision.

In short: she’s a character that feels strong but still of the time period and I really like that.

I also really liked the pacing of this book. Information was doled out at a great pace. Not so fast as to feel rushed or like an information dump and not so slow that you’re all but flipping pages waiting for something to happen. The story itself is interesting, I like that the legacy she wields has some rather nasty consequences and there’s even a nice bit of budding romance that I find rather believable.

All told, if you like YA fantasy, give this a look. You should enjoy yourself.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

Borrow it: Spider’s Bite (Elemental Assassain #1)

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Summary:

They call me the Spider. I’m the most feared assassin in the South — when I’m not busy at the Pork Pit cooking up the best barbecue in Ashland. As a Stone elemental, I can hear everything from the whispers of the gravel beneath my feet to the vibrations of the soaring Appalachian Mountains above me. My Ice magic also comes in handy for making the occasional knife. But I don’t use my powers on the job unless I absolutely have to. Call it professional pride.

Now that a ruthless Air elemental has double-crossed me and killed my handler, I’m out for revenge. And I’ll exterminate anyone who gets in my way — good or bad. I may look hot, but I’m still one of the bad guys. Which is why I’m in trouble, since irresistibly rugged Detective Donovan Caine has agreed to help me. The last thing this coldhearted killer needs when I’m battling a magic more powerful than my own is a sexy distraction… especially when Donovan wants me dead just as much as the enemy.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s funny how having to write a review really makes you look at how you see a book. You can be reading along, going “this is kinda fun,” and then the second you have to verbalize your thoughts on the book you reliaze that you don’t really have much of anything to say.

And Spider’s Bite is one of those books for me.

On the face of it, there’s nothing bad about this book. The world building is solid (if not terribly unique), the plot moves along at a brisk pace and is interesting enough to make you want to keep reading, and there are some nice interactions between Gin and the people she surrounds herself with. So why am I left feeling kind of underwhelmed by it all?

After a lot of thinking, I think it comes down to Gin herself, and for two reasons: one, she talks a huge game about how she’s the best in the South. Does she feel that remarkable? Do anything so remarkable that you buy into her claims? Not really. Oh, there’s a person or two who hint that she doesn’t use her power to her full potential, but that’s about it. She’s a fairly generic Kick-Ass Woman that’s not uncommon to the genre.

The second reason, and the bigger issue for me, is that I don’t feel that there’s any moral complexity or ambiguity to the character. For all that she’s an assassin, Estep goes out of her way to say it’s okay to like her because she’s a Good Guy! She doesn’t kill innocents, kids, for pets, and she occasionally does pro-bono hits on pedophile rapists. She has hobbies, she cooks! See? Good Guy!

I found myself thinking about Alex Verus as I wound up reading the first book. If you haven’t read that series (and if you haven’t, shame on you), it’s about a character who spent his formative years of magical training being taught by bad guys, mostly unwillingly. Ten years after he escaped and did his best to stay out of both parts of magical society, the good guys still ldon’t trust him and the bad guys still treat him as if he’s one of them, and not unreasonably so. Unlike Gin, he’s not prone to violence (he’ll be the first one to say that he sucks at fighting and spends a lot of time running). But if you provoke him enough, if you just don’t leave him any other choices, he will go there. And you will probably end up dead, even if you are only 16 or 17. And he doesn’t feel bad that he did it, he was more pissed that they wouldn’t just leave him alone like he asked them too. He’s a character that’s trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t mind getting messy if his life (or the lives of his friends) depends on it, and characters react accordingly. He does get called out for his body count, he does get the side-eye from those he knows, he does lose friendships or have those friendships severely tested by his actions.

Gin?

Nope. No one has a problem with Gin. Everyone likes Gin! Even the detective who knows that Gin killed his partner (not knowing the why) still decides to get in her pants when she offers, because she’s sexy and charismatic! Now, the plot does unfold over a few days, so it’s not like there’s a ton of time for Gin to get introspective, but it feels when Gin talks about quitting it’s more so because her fallen mentor doesn’t want her to stay in the life, rather than her really ever having any qualms about what she’s doing or have ever realizing what an emotional toll a job like this is taking on her. It ultimately makes her feel a bit robotic to me.

At the end of the day, the book has over 22,000 reviews on GoodReads and holds a respectable 3.88 rating. Combine that with the fact that Estep just released book number 14 and it’s clear there’s a sizable fanbase for this series. While the character doesn’t quite work for me, maybe she’ll work for you.

Overall, I enjoyed the book enough to keep reading and wouldn’t dismiss the notion of giving the second book a look. That said, I have several other urban fantasy series on my plate so it won’t be a priority.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available Now

Hounded (Iron Druid #1) – Kevin Hearne

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Summary:

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old—when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.

Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power—plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish—to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

Review:

So both Seven Black Diamonds and Black City Saint had the fae. Both Black City Saint and Hounded have an Oberon. I gotta say, all this over-lap is more than a little trippy. But you know, it’s okay.

Hounded is awesome.

On my list of Urban Fantasy series to try this year (The Elemental Assassin is also on this list), I was not disappointed. While the short I read last year left me on the fence, this book obliterated any doubts I had about this series. The premise is just a blast: a 2100 year-old Druid that all the Irish gods (and a few non-Irish ones to boot) like to talk to and use in various ways (fighting, sexy times, you name it) whether or not he’s quite aware of the broader plot at hand.

The writing here is nice and light and frothy. No matter how bloody the fighting gets (and it does get bloody), the story never takes it self too seriously. It’s not so joking as to undermine the gravity of the story, but it’s very much that vibe of using humor to take the edge off, to stop it from being too dark. The aforementioned Oberon (his wolfhound) really helps in that respect as does the fact that his attorneys are literally vampires and werewolves.

The other thing that helps is that everyone is full of personality. The humans (gotta love the Widow MacDonagh, whom I’d love to have a drink with sometime), the goddesses, the witches. No one here is left to be a cut-out, except for maybe the cops that are touching the story at a glance.

Even though this is very much episodic Urban Fantasy it just feels fresh and fun – exactly what I was seeking and it may be just what you need as a palette cleanser as well.

The eighth book was just released this year. I look forward to making a dent in this series.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

A Criminal Magic – Lee Kelly

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Summary:

Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive – and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.

It’s 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery, the city’s magic underworld is booming. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Smugglers funnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer’s shine.

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts an offer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang, when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.

Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerous world of criminal magic – and when their paths cross at the Shaws’ performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joan and Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliances begin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimate allegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselves pitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

A CRIMINAL MAGIC casts a spell of magic, high stakes and intrigue against the backdrop of a very different Roaring Twenties.

Review:

I’ve been in a reading funk lately. I know it happens to me now and then, but this seems a bit worse than normal with me finding it more difficult than normal to find something actually satisfying to read. I’ve been trying to combat this in a few ways: I’ve dropped down my challenge on Good Reads from 90 to 75 as a reminder to myself that sometimes quality is better than quantity. Just because I can read all the books doesn’t mean that I should.

The other way, of course, is to read awesome books, like this one.

A Criminal Magic is a historical fantasy set in the 1920s where the Prohibition isn’t against alcohol, it’s against the Sorcerer’s Shine, pure magic, distilled into a beverage that is a trip in a shot. It’s a fun concept for a world and it’s really well done with a magic system that both feels developed and feels like it has consequence and better still, the magic serves as a backdrop for ultimately an interesting character study about two newcomers to the underworld and how that life impacts them. You watch as Joan gets drawn deeper in, the promise of wealth and security like her family has never had being worth the risk even as Alex by it all having seen both sides of it – the money and the blood on the hands that come with it.

It’s a great, adult, moody piece and it’s not moralistic or preachy about the choices the characters make. The relationship between Alex and Joan is especially fascinating to watch develop. It’s a lovely slow burn so that when they do get together it feels like it’s been earned, and at the same point in time when the end of the book has come about, the resolution feels right based on the paths the characters had been taking to this point.

If you’re looking for that bit of fresh air, absolutely give this a look. It’s fantastic.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: now