White Cat (The Curse Workers #1) – Holly Black

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Summary:

The first installment in The Curse Workers series from New York Times bestselling author Holly Black: “Urban fantasy, con story—whatever you call it, read it” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

Cassel comes from a family of con artists and grifters, all of them curse workers but him. On top of that, Cassel is plagued by guilt that he killed his best friend, Lila, years ago.

When Cassel begins to have strange dreams about a white cat and people around him are losing their memories, he starts to wonder what really happened to Lila, and what that means about his actions. In Cassel’s search for answers about Lila and himself, he realizes that his brothers have been conning him for years, and that the final piece in their quest for power is about to fall into place. Cassel has other ideas. He’s going to create an even more elaborate trap and, with Lila’s help, con a bunch of magic using conmen.

This “beautifully realized dark fantasy…with prose that moves from stark simplicity to almost surreal intensity in a moment” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) is rife with the unexpected. “Readers will be hooked” (Booklist) on White Cat.

Review:

The back cover of this book has the following New York Times quote: “A noir thriller.”

It is the single best summation of what exactly this book is. Oh, it has aspects of urban fantasy, but it honestly more feels like a thriller with hints of magical realism than a full on fantasy.

For all the talk of curse working in this book, you practically never see it. This is a book of relationships: Cassel and his brothers. Cassel and his grandfather. Cassel and his classmates. It’s about how he interacts with them and how it all starts to change as he uncovers truths about his past. It’s very good. It’s very atmospheric. It’s very grounded.

It barely feels like fantasy at all.

It doesn’t need more fantasy than it has, but it also means that those that might really enjoy this book could easily pass it up because of the label, and that’s just not fair to the book.

That being said, the fantastic underpinnings are rather interesting: a certain aspect of the population of the world can “work.” They can change your luck, your emotions, your memories, or even your body. Its one of the systems that almost works on a karmic level: kill someone, kill part of yourself. Alter someone’s memory, lose part of your own. It’s neat and it’s neat watching the consequences play through.

All told, this is a great little thriller and it’s quite enjoyable watching Cassel put all the pieces together. It just happens to have a bit of fantasy added for spice.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

The Rogue Retrieval

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Summary:

Sleight of hand…in another land.

Stage magician Quinn Bradley has one dream: to headline his own show on the Vegas Strip. And with talent scouts in the audience wowed by his latest performance, he knows he’s about to make the big-time. What he doesn’t expect is an offer to go on a quest to a place where magic is all too real.

That’s how he finds himself in Alissia, a world connected to ours by a secret portal owned by a powerful corporation. He’s after an employee who has gone rogue, and that’s the least of his problems. Alissia has true magicians…and the penalty for impersonating one is death. In a world where even a twelve-year-old could beat Quinn in a swordfight, it’s only a matter of time until the tricks up his sleeves run out.

Scientist and blogger Dan Koboldt weaves wonder, humor, and heart into his debut novel, The Rogue Retrieval. Fans of Terry Brooks and Terry Pratchett will find this a thrilling read.

Review:

You know, I think might be the favorite book that I’ve read from the Harper Voyager Impulse line. When I was trying to think of negatives about this book, about the worst thing I could thing of was “it doesn’t exactly break any new ground,” but that isn’t necessarily even a bad thing, if done well.

And honestly, it was.

The book knew exactly what it was: a story of contemporary, tech-forward humans traveling to a world that’s medieval in its technology to try and retrieve one of their own that went to this world and decided to not come back. And what’s impressive is that while you can figure out where the story is going in terms of their assignment, the story as a whole doesn’t go where you’d expect it to at all. It was a pleasant surprise. When you combine it with the likable characters, it makes for a fun, if basic read with an intriguing set-up for a possible sequel. All told, if you like the set up, pick this up. At $2.99, you can’t go wrong giving it a chance.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: January 19

Stacking the Shelves #13

Now that I’ve done my Best Of list, it seems to make sense to do a final Stacking the Shelves for the year. I have to say, there seems to be something about the month of December where I get book crazy. It’s been a little less than a month since my last post, and yet I’ve managed to acquire some twenty books in that time frame! And that doesn’t count one that will arrive in January and that I think I still have 3-4 ARCs out for request on NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’m hoping to get my hands on. Yikes. Maybe I should be sliiiightly more choosy for a while? My TBR pile would thank me 🙂

For the last time in 2015, let’s do this.

ARC

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My first unsolicited ARC. I feel all grown up :* It’s pure sci-fi, which I’m looking forward to. I played in the YA end of the pool in 2015, so looking to dip my toes more in the adult end in 2016.

DRC

There’s definitely a broad assortment of books in this group. In the YA camp we have The Prophecy of Shadows (Greek mythology-inspired), Daughter of Blood (epic fantasy), Seven Black Diamonds (faery) Burning Glass (romance/fantasy), Beyond the Red (sci-fi) and Flawed (dystopian).  On the adult side we have Submissive Seductions (erotica) A Girl’s Guide to Landing a Greek God (Greek mythology based) and Masks and Shadows (historical).  It’s a fun mix. The books here are posted in order of publication date; though it’ll take me a while to get to Daughter of Blood. It’s the the third in a trilogy and I managed to pick up the first two for $1.99 each on Kindle and will be reviewing those first. The others are all stand-alones/first in series, so there is that :*

physical books traded for by me

I picked these up in a blog sale. These are all young adult except for The Forbidden Library which is more middle grade, but Django Wexler was an enticing thought. Becoming Jinn got a lot of love when it came out and others sounded like fun (angels! steampunk!). Given the size of my TBR pile though, these are definitely going to be lower on the totem pole for when I’m looking for something different to mix it up.

eBooks bought by me

Another hodgepodge of adult and young adult. The Strange Maid is the sequel to the just-reviewed The Lost Sun. Hidden is the next Alex Verus novel. The Heir of Night/The Gathering of the Lost are the first two in the Wall of Night books. These Broken Stars is a sci-fi/romance The Rook is a fantastical thriller and Tooth and Claw is a novel of manners…with dragons.

Twenty-one books. Twenty-one. I think I need to slow down just a wee bit. LOL. So. Have you gone as crazy as I have? What have you added to your shelves?

Top 10 of 2015

Where has the year gone? It seems like yesterday that I was writing 2014’s list. Then again, isn’t that how it always goes? Anyways.

Before we get into it, once again here are the criteria I use:

1. Must have been reviewed in 2015 (so older titles qualify)

2. Only one book per author or series

3. Must have been rated as a “Buy It” by me.

Without further ado, let us begin !

Honorable Mention:

Alex Verus Series – by Benedict Jacka

I really wanted to put at least one of these books on my list as it is now one of my all-time favorite Urban Fantasy series. I debated breaking my own rules to put this on the list, but then I realized that this series is unique in that the sum is really greater than the individual parts, with each book I love it just a little bit more. These are quick easy reads with a protagonist that is much more gray than UF heroes/heroines are allowed to be with a great supporting cast including women who only grow stronger as the books pass. I know that the first book can seem derivative, but stick it out and give the series a chance. It may just grow on you the way it’s grown on me.

10.

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Read the review here

A mash-up of historical fantasy, secondary world fantasy, with a dash of science-fiction, The Philosopher Kings poses some great philosophical questions within its text that invites the reader to ponder over just as the characters do. I do think the appeal is too niche to really place it higher on this list, but for those who like philosophy or are looking for something a bit heavier, this is a book well worth checking out.

9.

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Read the review here

Yes, I know I just reviewed this the other day, and this would be the spot I was having trouble deciding what book to put here. The Lost Sun is Young Adult fantasy with Nordic flair and engrossing story of friendship and destiny and is well worth checking out.

8.

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Read the review here

A lush dark fantasy that builds up a wonderful atmosphere of tension that leaves you as unsettled as the heroine as she tries to navigate this world that she suddenly finds herself thrust into. Though not strictly Gothic horror, it has that lovely sense to it. If you like dark fae, give this book a look.

7.

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Read the review here

Urban Fantasy that has a) a completely average male as a lead, b) has no trace of the paranormal nor c) romance make this grounded tale a wonderful and unique read within the genre. If you’ve got a friend that you’re trying to lure into reading Urban Fantasy, this is an excellent series to start with.

6.

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Read the review here

The winning formula for this series is simple: take all your Urban Fantasy tropes and give them a twist. Vampires aren’t the main bad-guys, Charish mouths off and people get pissed at her. That kind of thing. A very fun ride and worth a read if you like the old favorites but want to see a hint of something new.

5.

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Read the review here

A secondary world epic fantasy that combines lush world building and one of the strongest, most sex-positive female characters I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t read on, anyone who reads epic fantasy should give this book a look. It’s reputation is well earned. Plus, the refreshed covers are simply stunning.

4.

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Read the review here

A historical fantasy that is audacious enough to make Lucifer the hero of our tale – and does so in a manner that is absolutely respectful to the religion in the process. Any and all fantasy writers that want to take on Christianity should use this as a guide on how to do it right. I’m thrilled it’s seeing a stateside release in 2016.

3.

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Read the review here

Combining characters you love and a sense of wonder as you travel the Zodiac’s galaxy, this is a rare sequel that surpasses the original. Fans of YA and sci-fi/fantasy blends should absolutely read this.

2.

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Another piece of YA sci-fi, the complex themes and the beautiful writing make me wonder if this wouldn’t have been better served on adult shelves. Complex themes, a bittersweet ending and a delicate balanced lesbian relationship make this a must read. Oh, and Talis is everything.

1.

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Read the review here

The most audacious book I’ve quite possibly read, even taking on J for the complexity of its story telling. The best part is that there is as much substance to it as there is style. One of the rare books that absolutely deserves the hype it’s received.

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So there we have it! I’d never guess I’d have three YA sci-fi titles as my top three this year, which makes it all the more awesome that I do. I think that niche of the genre really came alive this year and gives me hope that it’ll continue to mature and producer a richer cannon of books that stray away from the typical YA tropes. Aside from that, I don’t feel like 2015 was quite as strong a year for me as 2014 was, but as always, if you look, you will always find some gems.

So tell me, what were your favorites?

Did Not Finish – Rift (Nightshade Prequel #1)

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Summary:

Sixteen-year-old Ember Morrow is promised to a group called Conatus after one of their healers saves her mother’s life. Once she arrives, Ember finds joy in wielding swords, learning magic, and fighting the encroaching darkness loose in the world. She also finds herself falling in love with her mentor, the dashing, brooding, and powerful Barrow Hess. When the knights realize Eira, one of their leaders, is dabbling in dark magic, Ember and Barrow must choose whether to follow Eira into the nether realm or to pledge their lives to destroying her and her kind.

With action, adventure, magic, and tantalizing sensuality, this book is as fast-paced and breathtaking as the Nightshade novels.

This book is everything that I hate about Young Adult fantasy. I read 150 pages of the 430 before I gave up. Let’s list this bitch.

  1. Noblewoman Ember Morrow just hates to be a noblewoman and wants to be a warrior. Because.
  2. A healer from the Conatus just happens to appear at her father’s manor when the labor goes wrong. It is a miracle she arrives, and later suggested that her birth is a portent for the future of the order. AKA she’s a Chosen One.
  3. When she gets to the order, she undergoes the following rite: examine three rooms. Go through the door of the room that looks neat and undergo a trial there. There is medieval Europe (not even secondary world medieval Europe) the amount of craftsmanship and labor that would be required to make this happen is absolutely absurd.
  4. She is the only one of the six to pick War as her avocation.
  5. During her trial she successfully uses a dagger to kill that which was set against her. She has never had any actual training other than a few moves shown to her and practicing on some straw. On the other hand, her friend Alastair, who was trained to fight since he was probably five or six, was not successful in his attempt. Obviously, she’s a natural.
  6. Warrior order has zero issues bringing a girl with no training and no real strength of stamina from living a life of relative leisure into their order, despite the fact that she is way too old to start such training when her life would basically be half over at the age of 16.
  7. Order uses magical incense to induce hallucinations to help the smithy divine the weapon to produce for the knight.
  8. “The horse picks the rider.” And in this case, a stallion picks her. Despite never having had any experience horseback riding, within an hour she can successfully control said stallion at both a cantor and a gallop. Anyone who has ever ridden a horse will laugh at you and tell you no.
  9. Ember gets upset when she’s told to stay out of a fight because she hasn’t had any training – hey, she fought (aka got lucky) that one time in the trial, okay?? – defies her master and throws her dagger into the side of the beastie giving her mentor the time he needs to finish it off. Has the author ever SEEN a throwing knife? The balance of a dagger is completely off. Is it theoretically possible to use a dagger like a throwing knife? Sure. In theory. Would a girl with zero experience have gotten anywhere near close to doing what she did? Hahah. No.
  10. Crushing on your mentor.

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Look. Some of these tropes can be done well, but this is like a guide on how not to do any of them. Learning how to fight takes years of practice and no amount of “being a natural” can change that. Heck, look at Buffy. Once Giles finds her, he starts training her formally because he knows that being the Chosen One is only going to get her so far. The stuff with the horse and the knife is just absolutely insulting to anyone who knows anything about either one of the topics. I get that this is meant to be escapist fun, and I’m sure for some it is, but to me? It’s just stupid. This is the kind of stuff where you need to have some grounding in reality to make work and this has none of that. The book seems to have some fans, but for me, it’s just a no go.

 

A Fantasy Medley 3 – edited by Yanni Kuzina

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Summary:

In “Goddess at the Crossroads,” Kevin Hearne shares a thrillingly memorable episode from the past of his popular Iron Druid Chronicles hero Atticus O’Sullivan, revealing how one night’s dark encounter with the cult of Hecate served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s witches in the Scottish play.

With “Ashes,” Laura Bickle revisits Detroit arson investigator and powerful spirit medium Anya Kalinczyk as she, her five-foot-long salamander familiar Sparky, and Hades’ Charon pursue a destructive fire elemental named the Nain Rouge through the city’s festival in his dubious honor.

“The Death of Aiguillon” finds Aliette de Bodard exploring an episode sixty years prior to the start of her latest novel, The House of Shattered Wings, in which the survivors of an ongoing magical conflict in Paris eke out a grim existence, and one woman’s wish for a better life is granted at a terrible price.

And in “One Hundred Ablutions,” Jacqueline Carey, author of the much-beloved Kushiel’s Legacy series, tells the tale of Dala—a young woman chosen by her people’s overlords to be an exalted slave among slaves—and of the twining in her life of ritual, rebellion, and redemption.

Review:

Throughout the past year I’ve really started to grow an appreciation for anthologies. I think they can be a great way to be introduced to new authors and get glances at worlds you might want to further explore on your own. So when I got wind through Jacqueline Carey’s Twitter that she was participating in this new project, I got all excited.

Then I had sticker shock.

$20 for a trade paperback or $45 for a limited edition hard copy  signed by all four authors. There are apparently no current plans for an eBook version. On the face of it, it’s like, what’s the big deal. Small runs are expensive. Which is true. But this anthology totals 152 pages. Total. Each story averages somewhere around 35-37 pages. They are genuinely short stories, the kind you usally pay for at $0.99-$1.99 for on Kindle when the big publishers release them.

Not going to lie. That’s steep and makes it a tough sell. So the question becomes: is this book worth it?

While only you can put a dollar amount on that value, I can at least tell you what I thought of the stories and my own personal belief. Let’s get to it.

“Goddess at the Crossroads” is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. No more. No less. Atticus sits at a campfire and tells of how he met William Shakespeare and how he directly influenced the creation of Macbeth and the supposed curse that follows The Scottish Play. It’s fun, but it’s pure froth that’s easily forgettable. It’s a slice of life story basically. Existing fans won’t really learn much new about the hero and I’m not sure how much of a good introduction to the series it would be for newbies like myself. That says, the story does stand on its own pretty well, which is always appreciated in this kind of collection.

“Ashes” – I think was the best of the shorts from existing series. Fans of Anya will delight in the continuation of her story, while keeping it rather newbie friendly. I came out of this genuinely wanting to take another work at the series that the story was set in. I can’t speak to authorial intent, but if I were an author and I were invited to participate in anthology, this is what I’d aim for: a treat for my loyal readers that has the potential to earn me new ones at the same time.

“The Death of Aiguillon” – one of the reason for my sticker shock was that I didn’t like The House of Shattered Wings so much so I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. The world is very dense with history and mythology of how things came to be, and de Bodard leaves you to figure it out. I hate when books over-explain their worlds, but she doesn’t even try. She presents it as “here it is, figure it out,” and it’s just not enticing enough to try when the characters are all so chilly and distant and there’s so many characters and so much maneuvering that you need a flow chart to keep it all straight. Needless to say, the first novel wasn’t newbie friendly and this isn’t any easier a read. There is a nicely human sentiment at the core, but it’s just too dense for its own good. 

“One Hundred Ablutions” is the one that I was most excited for when I first heard the announcement. The prose is definitely lush without being dense as is her namesake, and this book looks at slavery through the lens of essentially a bird in a gilded cage. She may be well fed. She may have great quarters. She may get to be treated with a rarefied air amongst her other Kerens, but she’s still very much a slave. Like so many of Carey’s works though, I think it needed a little more time to develop. As it stands, it’s not bad, but it’s not her most memorable work either.

So all that said. Do I think it worth the $20 now? Would I now go and buy it?

No.

I really enjoyed two, only kind of liked one, and didn’t like one. To me, that’s just not enough.

As for you, I’ll make my recommendation this way: if you’re a completionist and really love one (or more) of the authors listed, it would be a great add to your collection. Everyone else can skip it either until an e-book version comes out (I’d recommend it at $10) or until the stories get reprinted down the road. As it stands, however, I just don’t think there’s enough meant on this books bones to warrant the price tag.

Verdict: Skip it. Should a price drop or a reduced-price eBook ever come along, upgrade this to a Borrow It.

Available 12/31/2015 through Subterranean Press.

Chosen (Alex Verus #4) – Benedict Jacka

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Summary:

I don’t publicly advertise that I’m a mage, but I don’t exactly hide it either, and one of the odd things I’ve learnt over the years is just how much you can get away with if you’re blatant enough. Hide something behind smoke and mirrors and make people work to find it, and they’ll tear the place down looking for what’s there.

Alex Verus is a diviner who can see probable futures—a talent that’s gotten him out of many a tough scrape. But this time, he may be in over his head. Alex was once apprenticed to a Dark mage, and in his service he did a lot of things he isn’t proud of.

As rumors swirl that his old master is coming back, Alex comes face to face with his misdeeds in the form of a young adept whose only goal is to get revenge. Alex has changed his life for the better, but he’s afraid of what his friends—including his apprentice, Luna—will think of his past. But if they’re going to put themselves at risk, they need to know exactly what kind of man they’re fighting for…

Review:

Have you ever had one of those moments where you weren’t sure if you were liking something, and then all of the sudden realized you were looking at it wrong and then just got it?

I had one of those moments while reading Chosen the fourth book in the Alex Verus’ series.

See, here’s the thing: said adept from the summary? He’s just not interesting. He’s entire characterization is basically:

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Only it was a sister who died and the adept manages to recruit a bunch of other kids into a kind of vigilante army that fights the dark mages nominally because the system’s broke, but in actuality just because he wants revenge.

And it makes for a very dull opponent and I was wondering when the book was going to get to it.

But then I realized, it’s also kind of not the point.

Chosen is really all about Alex and his backstory. What he did as an apprentice, and what he is now, and trying to reconcile the past with his present and the fact that you can’t always just make the bad stuff in your past disappear by not thinking about it.

One aspect of this series that I’ve always loved is that Jacka has very purposefully made Verus not a fighter. He’s not a battle mage, knows he’s not a battle mage and tries to avoid a fight whenever possible. It’s not that he’s a coward, it’s just the odds are perpetually against him, here so more than ever because of the numbers in this game. At his core, Alex is a decent guy and understandably doesn’t want to risk his friends, yet also knows he can’t just keep running. So he comes up with a plan that is brutal and effective. And what makes him so interesting as a character is that at the end of it all, he doesn’t regret the decision he makes, he regrets that he was forced to make that decision in the first place, forced to dig up that past he was so desperately trying to move beyond. It’s the kind of decision that really does put him squarely into anti-hero category without him necessarily being just an asshole for the sake of being an asshole. And that character study – the decisions he makes in this book – are what makes this book worth reading. There is plenty of action who like that kind of thing, though I found it a bit repetitive (get found, fight, run, repeat) after a while.

Alex Verus remains such an interesting character because at his core he is a decent guy who made some very poor decisions as a kid, and though he has been trying to overcome them, the fact remains that he doesn’t think like a good guy. He spent too much time with the Dark Mages as a vulnerable teenager and that training did leave a mark on him and that means that he’s willing to cross a line that most urban fantasy protagonists would never be allowed to cross.

Without question this is a series that quickly grew on me and is probably becoming one of my favorite of all time favorites. I look forward to reading Hidden and strongly recommend checking out the series if you haven’t already.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now