Review: “Her Knight’s Quest,” Alexis Morgan

Pros: Enjoyable world & story
Cons: Flat villain & confusing magic
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Alexis Morgan’s Her Knight’s Quest is the second book in her “Warriors of the Mist” saga, following My Lady Mage. The story follows five legendary warriors who can be called forth from their god-induced slumber to aid a person in great need. In My Lady Mage, a woman named Merewen called them forth. In Her Knight’s Quest, Duncan leaves the group in order to seek out forbidden tomes of knowledge at an abbey. Without that knowledge, they stand little chance of prevailing against the Duke’s evil blood magic. The abbess, Lady Lavinia, may prove to be far more valuable than any of the books under her protection, however; she possesses great power of her own, and the Duke seeks to kill or capture her at any cost.

 

I read My Lady Mage just long enough ago that I don’t feel comfortable giving it its own separate review, but I will say that I quite enjoyed it. The blend of magic and mysticism, romance and fantasy, is intriguing. Although it had been some time, I found it easy to pick up the threads again in Her Knight’s Quest—however, I would strongly recommend reading the books in order. That half-remembered background definitely made a difference.

My biggest gripe with the book is the villain. He’s about as mustache-twirlingly eeevil as you can get, and there isn’t any real dimension there. This made it harder for the conflict of the series to grab hold of me. The Duke also isn’t the only flimsy character; you’ll recognize the standard child who knows too much/is touched by the gods as well. It’s hard to see her as more than a transparent plot device. In part this is because while we see the religion present in the warriors’ veneration of their Lord and Lady, we see little of other gods, leaving the child’s eerie pronouncements without any apparent divine personality or guidance to back them up. Like the religion, the magic system tended to leave me a bit confused, trying to reconcile how it apparently works in one instance with how it works in another.

All that said, I did enjoy the book. The main characters are interesting, and their romance is sweet. There are some plot twists that keep things moving. It’s nice to see that the villain has weaknesses. I also appreciated getting to see bits and pieces of what’s going on with Merewen and the rest of the knights.

It isn’t a series I’ll hurry to follow the whole way through, but it’s a nice read when I happen to get my hands on the books.

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Posted in Reviews

Two whole reviews!

I feel like weeping for joy. Two whole reviews written & posted. Still having medication adjustment issues as well as the underlying problems, but hell, I got something done. Maybe it’s the lovely Spring weather, in which case I hope it sticks around for a while!

Posted in News & Musings

Review: “Strange New Words,” by Ari Marmell

Pros: Very enjoyable collection of oddity tales
Cons: Some engaged me more than others; some were more predictable than others
Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Ari Marmell’s Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism, Hi-Jinks, and Horror is an enjoyable collection of mixed-genre tales. This is always a tricky undertaking—there’s likely to be something for everyone inside such a collection, but there’s also likely to be something that isn’t for any given person, making it hard for the book to feel ‘perfect’. Don’t let this dissuade you from reading “Strange New Words” however, as the tales you’ll enjoy are well worth the ones that might not suit your tastes.

 

The Cemetery Wyrm: A creepy tale of a man’s obsession with a sculpture of a dragon—a cemetery monument—and the question of who lies interred beneath it. A slow, wandering tale that wraps up very satisfyingly.

The Purloined Ledger: A gangland detective tale heavily laced with magic; not my favorite style of story, so I can’t judge it well. Still, I enjoyed the basic howdunit.

The Shaman’s Tale: In which a foul-mouthed Orc shaman tells a tale that explains to his people why their race serves instead of ruling. It’s a nice upending of some fantasy tropes, with plenty of personality.

Railroad Spikes: A steampunk/Western tale, one of those tense thrillers in which someone has to make their way through a deadly set of traps. This is a type of story that’s hard to do well, but it kept me on my toes beautifully.

The Rubies of Olun-Zeth: This one has the feel of an old-style pulp story crossed with D&D-like fantasy adventure. Some of the characters nicely avoid stereotyping, but others don’t. Some twists work well, but overall the tale felt predictable to me. It’s the ‘not for me’ entry of the book.

Big Apple, Small Serpent: A tale of an Egyptian cobra, determined to escape from her captivity in a zoo, and the ancient power she calls upon. I love this tale; it’s sweet and unusual.

Reaver: A ragged, abandoned ship appears from the mists of a river to haunt a village. The horror that follows is well-executed and inexorable, and the characters have enough depth to carry it off well.

Twenty-One-Oh: A cyberpunk chase story, with plenty of twists of fortune, crazy stunts, and a suitably entertaining ending.

Tithe: Another tale-told-within-a-tale. While it isn’t my favorite conceit, it suits this story well. It’s a haunting tale and one I won’t soon forget.

Than to Serve in Heaven: Lucifer is commanded to return home to Heaven, where a most unusual arrangement awaits him. And while I really do wish that the ending had been more explicit, at the same time… I don’t. It isn’t an easily wrapped-up tale. It isn’t cut-and-dried. But it is fascinating.

The Ogre’s Pride: A quirky tale of a semi-reformed ogre and a brief quest he sets himself upon. I like the lack of black-and-white good-and-evil characters here.

In Deepest Silence: A sub sets out on a rescue mission, only to have it all go sideways when they come across something impossible, and impossibly horrific. Lovecraftian horror is difficult to do well, but I enjoyed this one.

One Solitary Scale: The final tale of “Strange New Words” is the other side of “The Cemetery Wyrm”. It’s another tale of obsession and horror, and I loved watching it unfold.

 

My favorites were the connected bookend tales (“The Cemetery Wyrm” and “One Solitary Scale”) with their air of creeping horror. I particularly found “Railroad Spikes” and “Big Apple, Small Serpent” engaging and absorbing. But “Than to Serve in Heaven” was the most intriguing of the tales, and stuck with me the longest.

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Posted in Reviews

Review: “A Cursed Embrace” by Cecy Robson

Pros: There’s some interesting plot material
Cons: I can’t stand the “feel” of the story/world—I’ll explain further in the review
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

This is one of those cases where I’ll quote from the back of the book instead of doing my own summary of the set-up, because I’d have trouble with this one for various reasons.

After Celia and her sisters help master vampire Misha save his family, their powers are exposed to the supernatural community of the Lake Tahoe region. But fame comes at a price, and being “weird” isn’t always welcome.

To make matters worse, Celia desires the love of Alpha werewolf Aric, but his pack is bent on destroying their relationship to preserve his pureblood status. And once weres start turning up dead—with evidence pointing to the vampires—she must face the prospect of losing Aric forever. But the chaos only masks a new threat. An evil known as the Tribe has risen—and their sights are set on Celia and her sisters.

First, A Cursed Embrace: A Weird Girls Novel is a sequel to The Weird Girls: A Novella and Sealed with a Curse. This book doesn’t stand alone well, so read at least SwaC first. (Feel free to read my Series Books Rant if you’re annoyed that I would bother to mention this, or are bored.)

Since I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I’ll just run through the reasons why. Those reasons may or may not match your tastes, which is why I go into such detail—it might be enough info for you to decide you do want to read the book if you’re so inclined. In the unlikely event that the author stumbles across this: I recommend you stop reading here. I wrote this for potential readers, not you, and there’s no reason for you to give yourself heartburn over one reviewer’s opinions.

 

The book is told entirely in the first person from Celia’s point of view. This makes some of her thoughts remarkably narcissistic:

One hand curled around my waist, while his opposite hand traveled beneath my long chocolate waves to cup the nape of my neck.

Seriously? She’s being felt up by the werewolf of her dreams and her thoughts go to her “long chocolate waves”? Not only is that an awkward way to work description in, but it’s also highly self-centered in a first-person narrative. And no, that quote wasn’t the only example of this, nor is Celia deliberately painted as such a narcissistic personality.

But wait, there’s also the purple prose and over-the-top dialogue:

“You couldn’t have, sweetness. Your heart’s too pure to cause something so vile.”

Let’s move on to Aric (source of the above quote), the werewolf Celia has fallen for, and the other members of his pack. First, it’s love at first sight (from the last book)—everyone instantly pairs up, with Celia and all three of her sisters lining up neatly with Aric and his three pack members. It happened in the blink of an eye, and it’s a blatant pubescent teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy, plopped into the middle of a series that clearly isn’t meant for that age group (I’ll get back to that later). As for Aric himself, he comes across as the (often negative) stereotype of a college fraternity jock, which hardly makes him an attractive romantic interest. (Not to mention I felt very little chemistry between him and Celia.)

Celia is a Mary Sue character, which isn’t a compliment. She’s a supposed maladroit dork of a character, who just happens to have two of the most powerful and attractive men in town vying wildly for her affections. (I hate to say it, but the similarity between the name Celia and the author’s name Cecy doesn’t help that impression.) Even Celia’s imperfections serve largely to make her more adorable or awkwardly sweet rather than truly flawed.

Some of Celia’s reactions to Misha, that vampire, leave me with difficulties. He spies on her while she’s naked, and after she tells him that she’s with Aric now he all but sexually assaults her. Her reaction? Oh, damn, he wants her! Other than that? Eh, mild annoyance. And of course when she interacts with him later, it’s all good again.

Celia and her sisters are nurses, but as far as I can tell they’re only required to work when it’s plot-convenient. Nice gig if you can get it.

The first-person narrative is a problem in another sense. Celia feels the need to over-analyze and over-explain everything in her thoughts. This gets ridiculous everywhere, but worse, she keeps doing it during what should be fast-paced climactic plot events. It assumes stupidity on the part of the reader (nothing is left to the reader to figure out or understand), totally derails the pacing, and again, makes her seem narcissistic.

 

So here’s the thing. Celia comes across as a Mary Sue. All of the sisters feel like characters in a teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. And yet, some of the material in A Cursed Embrace gets dark. Horrifically sexually dark. Definitely not aimed at the teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy crowd. These two factors clash, both in tone and in audience expectation. I got jerked right out of the narrative by the tonal/content dive toward the end of the book.

I can’t recommend this book. I guess it could work for someone who wants the relationship and character development more common to some young adult books, while getting a serving of horror tossed in for good measure.

Posted in Reviews

Bye-bye, Epinions

For a long time I posted shortened versions of my reviews on Epinions.com. Due to certain changes at the site, it’s been a while since I did much there. Now they’re going defunct (I can’t say I’m surprised at this point), so I’m in the process of removing links to that site.

Posted in News & Musings

A bit of Errant History

Long, long ago, in the dim past of the internet—we’re talking 1998. Maybe 1997. Somewhere in there. Anyway, that’s when I started posting ‘stuff’ online. No blogs back then, so the tabletop RPG reviews I wrote were static pages in dirt-simple html. I moved on from those to book reviews, just because it was fun. I was also an article-writing machine back then, so we had the RPG article section, the cooking article section, and the writing article section. With some overlap in topics.

It didn’t take long to move from my little user page at MIT to our own site, which back then meant a server in our living room. That was burningvoid.com (we no longer own the domain name), and it lasted for quite some time. Think low-res title image with little white stars on a background of black letters. I’m at least able to say that I never used a blink tag, nor posted anything on geocities.

Some time ago, it became convenient for various reasons to turn this thing into a company. Partly because at the time, our tiny little cafepress store of gaming-related designs was doing surprisingly well. We ended up Errant Dreams, because seemingly every other company name or website address in existence was taken. I really like it actually, but I’ve discovered that most people go “huh?” when faced with the word “errant”, which makes it hard to verbally give people my email address. Blogs were a thing by then, as well as hosting our site on someone else’s server so home power outages didn’t take it down. Since I was ridiculously prolific on various topics, we had three main blogs: a review blog (hundreds of reviews of books, kitchenware, and whatever else I wanted to rave about), a writers’ exercises blog, and a more personal blog for site news and all of the random things I wanted to post about. I received insane numbers of requests for reviews, until I finally stopped trying to keep up with them all because even at my highest rate of one per weekday, I just couldn’t.

I’ve always gone through periods, usually several months at a time, when I’d post next-to-nothing. See, I’m bipolar/ADD, and those were largely the depressive times, or the ADD-I-can’t-focus times. Anyone who has experienced clinical depression knows how tough it can be to find the wherewithal to make breakfast, let alone write book reviews every day. I’ve always done fairly well on meds, but these things never go away—they can only be managed.

Meds for things like bipolar are always being tweaked. Our illnesses change a bit, our bodies change a bit, or our life circumstances change a bit, and suddenly things don’t quite work any more. I went through most of a year unable to sleep more than an hour or two a night, which is vicious on one’s energy level and ability to think, only to find out it was a side effect of a medication. So, thence started several years of medication meddling. Once you have to change one medication, it tends to cascade until you’re changing all of them. One made my hair fall out, so we moved on to one that caused hyponatremia (your sodium level drops, which is worse than it sounds). I had to go off of that very suddenly while ramping up very gradually on the next stabilizer (usually you do both concurrently so you’re always medicated), meaning that for a time I was essentially unmedicated for my bipolar. That was a truly miserable time, during which I tried to leave the house as little as possible. My husband should be nominated for sainthood for coping with me during that time.

Finally we got the mood stabilizer worked out. It’s best to mess with only one med at a time so you know which med is causing what, so next came pinning down my ADD/anxiety med. By the time we got those worked out the difference was so stark that I thought I was ‘all better’—or at least as close as you can get with the meds. When you come out of a dark tunnel, after all, a gray day seems downright sunny. It took a while to realize that I was still suffering from depression—many people with bipolar need a separate anti-depressant on top of their mood stabilizer. I never had before, but I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

The fact that I’m managing to write this post is a result of trying a new antidepressant. I can’t know yet how well it will hold me up, how steady it will be, and how much energy & motivation I’ll be able to hold onto. I can’t yet be sure I won’t have side effects that cause me to go through all of this all over again. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

I’ve learned not to make grand pronouncements about how now I’m better, and now I’ll be able to get things done, because sometimes it doesn’t last, and there’s always another eventual several-month dip. So I won’t do that now. This break has been long enough that I don’t get review books automatically sent to me anymore, but I’m glad of that—not being able to cope with reviewing books I’d been sent just made me feel even worse. Besides, I have scads of reviews to catch up on, which should last me a long time.

I’m hopeful, however. It’ll probably be a slow and fitful start if it works out at all, but I’d really like to start posting again.

Anyway, to go back to that history: since how I post has changed so much, and all those static pages felt like tattered remnants of a bygone era, my incredibly wonderful husband re-made the site. Everything is one blog now. The old articles exist, as ‘blog posts’ with a date of when I originally wrote them. I haven’t gone through them to make sure links work and things like that. There might be big swaths that have issues. But I’m here writing this update at least, which frankly is a big enough step that I feel pretty damn good about it. He also simplified things: when left to organize things, I inevitably over-engineer. WAY over-engineer.

If you somehow managed to sit through all that babbling, then I wish you all the best for the holiday season and the new year!

Posted in News & Musings

"Thankless in Death", J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Unusual antagonist and lots of Eve curmudgeonliness
Cons: The antagonist is also annoying; a few too many unwanted accolades get thrown at Eve’s feet
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Release date: September 17, 2013
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Lieutenant Eve Dallas, New York homicide cop in a science-fantasy version of the near future, all but hopes for a new case to get her out of Thanksgiving dinner (as well as a press conference at which she’ll be presented with an award). She really isn’t a people-person, but her extended network of friends and family-in-law just won’t let her hide from them. Eve gets her wish, but she’s still going to have to make time for everything else as well. A young slacker who’s never achieved anything in his life has lucked into something he’s finally good at: killing. He isn’t stupid enough for Eve to catch him quickly, but he isn’t smart enough to evade her for long. It’s just a question of how many old grudges he’ll settle before she catches up to him.

 

Thankless in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) is the… oh hell, the series is so long by now that there’s little point to counting them up. While the friends-family-and-marriage arc keeps long-term readers happy and in some books occupies enough space to deter new readers, Thankless in Death has a larger proportion of procedural to it, making it a halfway decent spot to jump in. (For those not familiar, things do get bloody.)

As always Eve is a delightful curmudgeon, but there are enough unwanted accolades falling at her feet in this particular book to provide echoes of a Mary Sue feeling. Luckily she has enough flaws to keep things from getting out of hand in that area. (One of my favorite quirks is her tendency to butcher truisms and cliches.) There’s enough hot Eve-and-Roarke action to satisfy romantic/sexy reader longings, enough ongoing character development to satisfy long-time fans, and enough serial killer plot to satisfy procedural fans like myself. My only qualifier there is that the bad guy is a little too annoying for my taste. That said, he’s an unusual and interesting enough antagonist and I enjoyed seeing what he’d do next and how Eve would catch up to him. There’s plenty of sparkling, quotable goodness in the character banter—that’s part of what attracts me to the in Death series in particular.

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Posted in Reviews

"Undead and Unsure" by Mary Janice Davidson

Pros: Certainly unique; very funny at times
Cons: I’m so tired of brand-name-shoe-obsessed heroines; characters that are very unlikable
Rating: 2 out of 5

Release date: August 6, 2013
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Betsy is the queen of the vampires… and that’s the most normal thing happening in Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead and Unsure. After that we get to the childlike vampire king, the whiny antichrist, the weird pregnancy that no one seems to be able to think about… And did I mention the time travel/parallel universes thing?

First things first. Undead and Unsure is the latest in a very long series of books. (12th, I think?) Yes, I ended up reading it without reading the rest of the series first. (One of the perils of reviewing books. See my rant about series books before chastising me, please.) Although I just barely hung on by my fingernails, I do not, repeat, do not recommend reading this book without reading the others first. Although some things became clear over the course of the book, I never did piece together all the time travel and parallel universe material, and it was hugely important to the plot.

Unfortunately, while sometimes picking up a series in the middle makes me run, not walk, to pick up the previous books, that wasn’t the case here. The book is very funny at times. In many ways it presents a remarkably unique world, which is a rarity these days; the author is to be lauded for that.

However, I found some of the important characters to be almost entirely unlikable (read as: Betsy, our shoe-obsessed heroine). Don’t get me wrong; that certainly can work. It just didn’t work for me in this case. While Betsy’s obsession with designer shoes is cute, I ran out of patience for that character trait a few years ago. (Of course I don’t fit the female shoe-loving stereotype, so your mileage may definitely vary.) Also, Betsy’s vampire king was, for a goodly part of the book, a little too childlike, making the sex awkward rather than sexy.

I think this is a series that will definitely be very personal-taste-dependent. Hopefully I’ve included enough of my reasons for not loving it that you’ll be able to tell for yourself whether it would entice you.

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Posted in Reviews

My rant about why many series books should be able to stand alone

I’m working on a review of a book that is quite a ways on in a series—a series that I’ve never read from before. I already know from experience that some of the people who read my review will be very angry that I could consider myself able to review said book without having read the rest of the series, and who will tell me that all of my problems with the book wouldn’t be problems if I had just read those other books.

It got to be a pain trying to insert the explanation for why this can be useful into so many reviews. And I know it was annoying for anyone who reads multiple reviews on this site to have to read that over and over again. That’s why I’ve added my rant about series books as a permanent page on the blog.

tl;dr My rant comes down to this: there are some very good reasons why most series books should at least marginally be able to stand on their own. There are also some very good reasons why prospective readers might need that piece of information out of a review. If you want the specifics, follow that link and enjoy the long form!

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Posted in Reviews, Writing

Excuses, Excuses

This time it was Return of Anemia and getting our car totaled (with us in it—no terrible injuries). I have every plan to review several books soon (currently reading Meljean Brook’s “Guardian Demon”)—hopefully putting that down in writing will make it easier for me to sit down and do it. So far, I will say that I’m finding “Guardian Demon” to be a wonderful roller-coaster of emotion, action, terror, and hot sex, so unless it chokes up by the end, which I find unlikely, I’ll be giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. Meanwhile, Christine Feehan’s “Dark Lycan” (uncorrected proof) didn’t totally wow me (too many instances of stopping to explain things in detail, where they didn’t fit the scene or disrupted the pacing), but was enjoyable and sweet, with plenty of action. Dansky’s “Vaporware” succeeded much better as an exploration of the balance of home/work life and the ups and downs of being a game designer than as the horror novel the back cover text and cover art intimated that it was, but there was definitely some fun action and dark moments to be had.

There. Hopefully that’ll hold you for a moment while I pull myself together and write something more substantial!

Posted in News & Musings

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