Category Archives: Urban fantasy

It Started with a Whisper by A. W. Hartoin.

It started with a whisper

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Ernest “Puppy” McClarity has only one wish: that Miss Pritchett, his dreaded math teacher, leaves him alone on the last day of school, so he makes a wish to his great-granddad Ernest to take care of her for him. Only wishes are a powerful thing when you are a McClarity, and old Ernest always watches over his own, even if he is long dead.

I absolutely loved It Started with a Whisper. It has magic and paranormal elements in it, but they are presented in such a manner that a lot can be seen as coincidences or weird accidents. This book is not about the all-powerful witches that smite their enemies with deadly spells. It’s about a family that loves each other and their land, and would do anything to protect each other as well.

I loved all the characters in this book. The McClarity clan is big, colorful and full of crazy people. They biker, they fight with each other, but they also have fun and love each other unconditionally. And they are all fully fleshed and tridimensional characters. I felt like I was right there at Camp with them, just another member of the Pack.

And Great-grandpa’s Ernest old homestead, or the Camp as everyone calls it, is described with such love and attention to detail, that I could picture it perfectly in my head as well. That’s actually one of the reasons I loved this book so much – it reminded me of the summers I spent at my grandparents summerhouse when I was a child. It was in a remote village in Russia where everybody knew each other and nobody ever locked their doors. All the kids would play together from dawn till dusk, and nobody worried where we were. That long-forgotten feeling of freedom, of summer heat and lazy afternoons swimming in the pond or exploring the woods behind the village, I managed to recapture it again while I read this book. And for that, Mrs. Hartoin, I thank you.

This story is less about magic, and more about Puppy slowly leaving his childhood behind and realizing that actions have consequences, and that sometimes things are not what they seem, and neither are people. Nothing is black or white, and even the hated teacher who had been so awful to him all year long might do so because she is profoundly unhappy and just lashing out.

It’s a coming of age story and it’s executed perfectly. Puppy is a typical 14 year old boy who has just barely left childhood and suddenly discovered that girls might as well be aliens from Tau Centori, because they are just as puzzling. Like any other boys his age, he is awkward around them, unsure of himself and slightly embarrassed about his mother always dropping him at school at least 30 mins late. All he wants at the beginning of the book is spend a fun summer at Camp with his family and friends, and hope that Beatrice, the llama that seems to hate him for some reason, doesn’t spit on him too often.

But when real disaster strikes and some of his actions have grave consequences, he steps up and does what is right. By then end of the story, Puppy has turned into a good man, a man Grandpa Ernest would be proud of.

I thoroughly enjoyed It Started With a Whisper and my time spent at Camp with the McClarities. On this cold and dreary season it was a much needed breath of summer heat. I would definitely pick up the next book when it comes out in 2015, because I wouldn’t mind coming back for a visit… as long as I’m invited. Because bad things happen to people who step on Ernest’s land uninvited.

PS. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a honest review through LibraryThing.

Hotter than Helltown by SM Reine

Hotter than Helltown

Stars: 3 out of 5

Hotter than Helltown is one of those books I find tough to review. On one hand, I liked it while I read it – there was an interesting plot and it kept moving along fast enough to make you want to turn the pages; the characters didn’t get on my nerves, and I didn’t mind following them. On the other hand, once I reached the end, closed the book and tried to summarize what I’d just read, I was left with a shrug and a “meh, it’s alright, but nothing stellar” assessment.

 

Yes, the story moves along at a fast pace, and it’s fun to follow Cesar along while he tries to investigate the gruesome murders and study for a big magical test that might cost him his life if he fails. 

 

The problem is, the story moves along too fast. It’s a relatively short book and a lot of events seemed crammed into the pages. This leaves no space for character development or world exploration. It’s a non-stop sprint from page 1 to THE END. I mean, sure, it keeps you entertained while you read it, but once you’re finished, it doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste.

 

I liked Cesar’s POV, but he is the only character in this book with any kind of background or development. Everybody else around him are just sidekicks with no dept. Oh, stuff is implied or mentioned in passing about them, but never truly explored. I would have loved to know a bit more about his partner or his boss, or even have a glimpse into Bella’s story. But all this was left by the wayside as the book raced through the plot. Which made it hard to empathize and care about the characters, at least for me.

 

The world building element was also rather none-existent. Now, this might be due to the fact that this is book 3 in the series and most of the world building had been done in the previous installments. But it felt at times like I was running with the protagonist through a movie set – normal looking houses on the outside with just cardboard and wooden poles in the back to prop them upright. I think each book in a series needs to add something to the world, but Hotter than Helltown didn’t seem to do any of that… 

 

So to summarize, it was a fun and quick read, but it was forgotten just as quickly once it was done. If you just want an easy book to spend your Saturday afternoon with, by all means pick it up.

 

PS. This review is for the advanced reader copy I received via NetGalley.

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews.

Magic Bites

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Did I mention that I love the “alsobought” section on the Amazon site? I discovered a lot of books I fell absolutely in love with through that. Magic Bites was one of them. I had just posted a review on one of October Daye’s books by Seanan McGuire, and I was browsing through that section for something similar to read when I saw Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews.

Well, I can say that I’m glad I bought it because I loved this book. It has several of the components that I look for in a paranormal romance series, and all of them are done just right. So you can say that Magic Bites was a feast for sore eyes.

First of all, the worldbuilding. I loved this world where magic and technology come in alternating waves. I also like that the author set her story a long time after those waves first started happening, so it’s not a post-apocalyptic  story at all. Society has adapted to the new world and takes the changes in stride: they have both electricity and magic lights which switch on automatically depending on the wave; every garage or stable in Atlanta has both cars and horses.

The different magical beings and factions are also well-integrated into the society. I mean, when a magical wave can strike at any time and last for days, nobody would be very surprised to see witches, necromancers or shifters in the streets anymore.

So even in the first book of a series, we are introduced into a complex world with several different layers, a past and even a distinctive mythology. And the introduction is done progressively, without the dreaded infodumps that usually make me skip ahead or just close the book and never pick it up again.

So just for that, I would have already been happy with Magic Bites. But the good surprises didn’t end there. Kate Daniels is a strong female protagonist how they all should be – strong, smart, not afraid to make tough decisions and used to relying only on herself. Yes, she can come across and stand-offish and over-confident sometimes, but I think it has more to do with her upbringing and backstory, which is hinted upon, but not entirely explained. Which is also good, because it makes me want to pick up the next book in the series to learn a bit more about her.

Kate is a loner. She had been brought up to think that she cannot trust anyone but herself and that getting attached to other people is a weakness. So she tries to act accordingly. But she was also brought up with an inane sense of justice, so she can’t help but intervene when she sees something as being wrong. Which has a tendency to land her in a world of trouble.

Since it’s a paranormal romance, I can’t write a review without mentioning the romantic interest as well. Those of you who had been following my blog for some time know that the romance has to be very well written and feel “natural” for me to like the book. So that’s another point in this book’s favor – the romantic component is there, there are hints, but I have a feeling that it will develop gradually through the course of several books.

I also liked the fact that the romance does not take the driver sit in the story. Both Kate and Curran feel attracted to each other, yes, but that attraction is in the background. I have read way too many novels where the romantic interest seems to exist only when the protagonist is around and has no life / goals / desires outside of that. I’m glad that Curran isn’t like that. You can feel that he has his own life, his responsibilities and passions that have nothing to do with Kate or the case they end up investigating together. In other words, he is a well-rounded character on his own.

So yes, I loved this book and I love this series. And I will strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an engaging story, wonderfully fleshed-out world and complex characters.

P.S. And I think that Kate’s first encounter with Curran is hilarious. I mean, “Here, kitty, kitty?”

The Younger Gods by Michael R Underwood.

The Younger Gods

Stars: 4 out of 5

It’s been a while since I read a good urban fantasy book that didn’t center around fae or werewolves / vampires and didn’t include a romance. In fact, I had come to the sad belief that these were the only books the genre had to offer. So The Younger Gods by Michael R Underwood was like a breath of fresh air.

Jacob Greene came to New York to escape the clutches of his very overbearing and secretive family and start a new life away from the cult. Jacob’s only worries now are to try and fit into this strange new world that is life at St. Mark’s University, keep his grades up to keep his scholarship, and stretch his meager allowance in order not to die of hunger before the end of each month. Then a crucified body is found in one of the New York parks, and Jacob realizes that his family has caught up with him…

I absolutely loved the main protagonist. Jacob is a smart and well educated boy, even though his knowledge mostly lies in the field of summoning monsters and performing human sacrifices.  He is completely lost in the intricacies of the normal college life, and his social skills are so bad that he can’t seem to make friends. The author did an excellent job showing the complete lack of common ground between Jacob and his classmates. They didn’t read the same books, didn’t hear the same stories, and Jacob just doesn’t understand any of the mass culture references we all take for granted. And his over-flowery and slightly archaic speech makes him seem even more alien. Jacob tries so hard to fit in, to put his less than normal childhood behind him, but when he hears about the murder on the news, he immediately recognizes his sister’s signature.

I like the fact that the idea to simply walk away and think “it’s not my problem” doesn’t even cross Jacob’s mind. It’s his family, so it’s his problem. If he has to stop the apocalypse all by himself, he will do it, or die trying. That shows a tremendous strength of character.

And the author also did a very good job showing the diversity of races and cultures in New York city. All of the secondary characters come from different ethnicities and cultural (and magical) backgrounds. Carter is an Indian (dot, not feather) Nephilim, Antoinette is a voodoo practitioner from Haitian descent, and Dorothea is a black ex-NYPD cop who became a Brooklyn Knight. And they are not just clichés put in the book just to act as a background to Jacob’s adventures. They are well fleshed out characters. Oh, and there are also Staten Island werewolves, Rakshasa from Queens and a multitude of other magical beings that call New York home.

The pacing of the book is fast and gripping. There isn’t a single dull moment. It’s even a bit too fast in places, and I caught myself wishing for the action to slow down and give myself and the characters a breather. But at least it’s never boring!

My only complaint is that there are still some errors in the copy I read. For example, Nate is described as a man when we first meet him, but halfway through the chapter, he is suddenly referred to as “she”, then he becomes a “he” again when we next meet him. But I think all those problems are due to the fact that I read the ARC of the book I got from NetGalley, and hopefully didn’t make it into the published version of the book.

So if you like strong characters and an interesting story, you should definitely pick up The Younger Gods. I will be looking forward to the next book in the series.

Memory Zero by Keri Arthur

Memory Zero

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

It’s usually hard to evaluate the first book in a series. After all, the author has to introduce a brand new world, set up the rules, introduce the characters, and tell a story that’s engaging enough to make the reader want to buy the next book. And all this without making the book read like a huge info-dump. Not an easy feat to pull off, by all accounts.

I think that Keri Arthur did a pretty decent job with Memory Zero on all accounts.

Sam Ryan accepts to meet with her partner, Jack, who has gone missing two weeks prior. She hopes that he will give her some answers as to why he has suddenly gone MIA. Instead, he tries to kill her, and she is forced to kill him in self-defense. Only the Jack she had known and worked with for five years was human, and the man she killed is a vampire. So is it really Jack she killed? And why is someone bound and determined to hunt her down? Does this have anything to do with her past that she can’t remember?

Keri Arthur manages to create an interesting world. I can see that it has depth and history, but this is conveyed without the dreaded info-dump. There are hints at a bigger conflict, but mostly we discover this along with Sam. So we only know what concerns her, nothing more. I kinda like that. It gave me enough information to know that it’s a potentially interesting world I wouldn’t mind reading more about, so in that respect Memory Zero did exactly what it was supposed to do – it hooked me.

Now let’s talk about our protagonists. I actually liked Samantha Ryan, even though she comes with the trope I absolutely hate – memory loss. Sam was dumped at an orphanage as a teenager and has no memory about anything that happened to her before that day. One of the reasons she joined the police is to discover any leads about her past. The fact that she found nothing, and that even the birth certificate that was found in her pocket by the orphanage staff is fake, indicates that someone very powerful is involved and they don’t want her digging any further.

She is a strong character, but without being pushy or rude, like too many “strong” female protagonists are nowadays. She has a head on her shoulders and she knows how to use it. I also love the fact that she faces her fears and fights them. She has a fear of dark small spaces, but she is stubborn enough to crawl through the fake ceiling to escape from imprisonment, even though the dark and tight space makes her want to hyperventilate and scream at the top of her lungs in cheer terror.

I am less impressed with Gabriel Stern. He is described as the second in command at SIU, but he spends the whole book one step behind the bad guys, trying to put out the fires that were smoldering for months without him noticing. Heck, he’s even too blind to notice a traitor in his own family!

I think the biggest problem with Gabriel is that the author didn’t bother looking much further than “love interest”, “man with mysterious and dramatic past that leaves him incapable of trust and love” tropes. So his behavior is sometimes illogical and bewildering. I really hope that the author gets a better grasp on his personality and motives in the next book, because right now he is rather frustrating to read about.

But my main problem in this book and the reason I only gave it 3.5 stars is the antagonist. Jack is such a stereotypical villain that almost everything about him is a trope. He is the right hand to the current big bad Sethanon (whom we don’t even see in this book, btw), but he wants to overthrow him and become the next big bad… Ok, whatever floats his boat I guess? He is also inexplicably fixated on Sam, whom she wants to either join his side, or kill, or just experiment on; it’s not every clear, even to the author, I think. Plus I find it hard to believe that Jack managed to play the role of a good partner and friend for 5 years without Sam suspecting anything because the Jack in this book has the acting capabilities of a doorknob.

My other problem with Jack is that he makes way too many stupid decisions. I seriously wanted to hand him the Evil Overlord’s Rulebook when I was reading. I mean who would lock both protagonists in the same room and not even bother to search their pockets? And after that he acts all surprised and asks Sam how she got out. I would have laughed in his face.

This is sad because if the antagonist was less of a caricature and more of a fleshed-out human being, the book would have had a lot more tension.

But despite all this, Memory Zero did what it was supposed to do. I will pick up Generation 18, the next book in the series. I want to know more about Sam’s past and who this Sethanon that everybody is afraid of is. But pretty please, give me a real villain, not a walking cliché next time.

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Underground

Stars: 4.5 out of 5

 Whispers Underground is the third book in the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch. I have reviewed the first two books as well – Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US) and Moon over Soho.

 Peter Grant is back and better than ever! When the body of an American exchange student is found on the Underground tracks near Baker Street Station, Peter is forced to explore a bit more of the London’s underground tunnels and sewer systems than he really wants to. But the place where the victim was found has a very strong vestigia, which means that the young man had been killed by magic. And with Nightingale busy chasing after the evil wizard called The Faceless Man, who had almost killed Peter in the previous book, it falls to Peter and Lesley to investigate this particular murder.

 Needless to say, I loved this book. Ben Aaronovitch has a knack for sprinkling his stories with just the right amount of intrigue and tension to keep his readers turning the pages. At the same time, he manages to insert little historical trivia and tidbits about magic and science, but in a way that never feels boring or info dumpish.

But the strongest aspect of these books is the characters. Peter Grant is as funny and likable as ever, and Nightingale is still awesome and mysterious. Thou we are starting to see a more human side of him as well, which makes me like him even more, and pity him a little as well. For over fifty years, he had lived his life with the guilt of being one of the few survivors of a war that saw most of the English wizards eliminated. He lived with the conviction that magic was slowly dying out and that he had become obsolete, like the dinosaurs. And all of a sudden he discovers that all this time there had been another wizard operating in London, recruiting apprentices and doing rather questionable experiments, all this right under his nose and he didn’t notice anything.

 Oh, and Lesley is back! She is still horribly disfigured and has to wear a mask in public, but she is now a full-time member of the Folly and Nightingale’s second apprentice. I’m glad that she gets a bigger role in these books, because I find her interesting and engaging. She’s been handed the short end of the stick, but she doesn’t mop around and wallow in her misery. She presses on instead and tries to master the other gift she has discovered – magic. And, unsurprisingly, she is better at it than Peter, because she is determined and persistent.

 We are also introduced to a few new characters that might or might not have a bigger role in the next books.

 All in all, it’s an excellent installment in the series, and I actually like this story better than Moon over Soho, maybe because I’m not very versed in the musical / jazz scene, but a murder underground – that’s right up my alley.

 I don’t think you necessarily need to have read the previous two books to understand the plot of Whispers Underground, but I would strongly recommend reading them first anyway. If nothing else, it will give you two more exciting stories to discover. You can get them on Amazon – Rivers of London and Moon over Soho.

My conclusion is – wonderful book. I’m glad I bought it and I already acquired Broken Homes, book 4 in the series, so be on the lookout for a review once I’m done with it.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

“Dear you, The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

 Yes, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley starts with one of the tropes I hate: the heroine finds herself standing surrounded by bodies with no idea how she got there or even who she is. Normally, I would have immediately closed this book and moved on to something else, because amnesia had been used and abused so much already that it’s extremely difficult to do anything new and interesting with it, at least in my opinion.  Well, Mr. O’Malley managed to surprise me, because he pulled this off brilliantly. I’m glad I stuck with the book – I ended up absolutely loving it.

 The world Daniel O’Malley describes is also not particularly innovative. I have seen most of that before. We have a secret organization called The Chequy that is responsible for protecting the world from supernatural treats and monsters (and people) with often rather terrifying powers. On, and the Chequy also makes sure that the general public remains blissfully unaware of said monsters.

This organization seeks out young people with supernatural abilities and recruits them, trains them and uses them for the good of Queen and country. Yes, the story takes place in Britain, but there is a kick-ass American agent in it as well.

 So even though the world is not new, the presentation and the world building are excellent and compelling.

 And the protagonist in his book deserves a special mention. Myfawny Thomas is what I would like to see more often in strong female characters. She is thrown into the deep end from the very beginning of the story, not knowing what’s going on or what she is capable of, the only guidance coming from the notes her former self left her. Yet, when she is presented with the choice to empty the contingency funds, grab her fake passport and make a run for it to start a new life somewhere far away, she chooses to stay instead. She decides to go back to work and try to impersonate the total stranger that her former self is to her now and to discover what had led to her current predicament. She does that even though both her new and her former selves strongly suspect that the assassination attempt she so narrowly survived was orchestrated by someone within the Chequy itself, someone she works with and probably passes in the hallways every day. That takes will power.

 I also loved the transformation Myfawny undergoes throughout the book. We get glimpses of her former self in the letters she left to her new self and through the attitude of other people towards her. I like the fact that Myfawny doesn’t try to go back to being that person. She sets off to find her own path, to do things her own way, to try new things her former self would never have dared doing.

 I think that’s why the amnesia trope works well here. Myfawny isn’t suddenly remembering “mad skills” she used to have before, she is acquiring and developing new skills instead. It is interesting to watch, and I can say that by the end of the book the new Myfawny and the old Myfawny are two completely different people.

 I won’t discuss the plot here because I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovery, but I will say that it had me hooked and turning the pages until the very end. We have an external treat that might or might not be more than it seems. We have prominent members of the Chequy with dark secrets. We have a possible mole that might or might not be behind the assassination attempt. And Myfawny finds herself in the middle of this while she tries to act like her formal self, do her job and make sure that nobody suspects that she doesn’t remember anything.

 My only complaint about this book is that it’s over, and that Daniel O’Malley is taking his sweet time writing the next one. I want to know more! I want to see how Myfawny will adjust to her new life and read about her new adventures.

 So if you are looking for a good read, buy The Rook, get comfortable and prepare to enjoy. You will not regret it.