Review: “Unbinding,” Eileen Wilks

Pros: Interesting premise with plenty of action
Cons: I missed some of the series main characters
Rating: 4 out of 5

Unbinding, by Eileen Wilks, follows Ritual Magic in her World of the Lupi series. Unlike most of the rest of the series-so-far, it leaves series regulars Lily and Rule off on their honeymoon halfway around the world while things go to hell back home. Nathan, a former Hellhound who serves the faerie queen of Winter, and his lover, Kai, are setting off on a Hunt. Their prey is a god–well, sort of. He’s already been killed once, and he has almost no worshipers to give him strength. Given that he is the god of chaos and madness, however, he has some unusual and deadly plans in motion. Kai’s Gift, which allows her to see the shape of people’s emotions–and ‘heal’ them–features prominently in his plans.

Human and elf were, she thought, like water and vodka–two clear liquids that shared many qualities, but heaven help you if you threw the wrong one on a fire.

I enjoy Nathan and Kai as main characters, but they don’t appeal to me in quite the same way that Lily and Rule do. I don’t feel like I have as much of a stake in what happens to them. That said, they’re interesting, fully-realized characters with intriguing pasts, assumptions, abilities, and feelings. We do get to see many of the other characters from the series: Benedict and Arjenie, Cullen, a little bit of Cynna, Isen (who sends some bodyguards to keep an eye on those who need it), and so on.

At first the good guys run around trying to put a stop to the bursts of chaos and madness that occur, but soon they realize that the god is kidnapping people. He’s even tried to kidnap Kai, and no one knows why. He has a plan to help him find new followers and regain his power, but it’s hard for our heroes to piece all of the mad clues together. Humans, law enforcement, faeries, werewolves, Gifted, and more will have to join forces to prevent the worst from happening.

“The Great Bitch has tried assassination, hellgates, demon-possessed doppelgangers, explosives, dworg, destroying the U.S. through mob rule, and destabilizing the entire realm. Those didn’t work, so now she’s using butterflies?”

While I certainly enjoyed Unbinding, it didn’t hold me fast the way most of the rest of the series did. I was interested in the outcome, but didn’t mind putting the book down and waiting until later. It’s a good story, but I happen to identify with the Lily-and-Rule side of the story a bit more (so far).

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Review: “Larkspur,” V.M. Jaskiernia

Pros: Many characters feel flat
Cons: The story has barely begun
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by author for this review.

V.M. Jaskiernia’s Larkspur, or A Necromancer’s Romance (Larkspur Series vol. 1; Clandestina) is quite short. I realize that’s kind of becoming a new “thing” since Amazon allows prices such as $0.99, and self-publishers are learning to serialize everything so as to drive more sales. That said, it would be nice if the book were long enough for me to feel truly pulled into its world before I hit the sudden, awkward not-really-ending.

So far, Larkspur is about a necromancer who dies and returns. He kills people using his blood; he has a familiar in the form of a black cat who can speak to him. Between him and the person watching over him, and the various servants and apprentices who either understand or are unaware of what’s going on, I couldn’t keep track of where the edges of his powers might be. I couldn’t understand why he did some of the things he did.

There’s a young woman, Elizabeth; they seem to fancy each other quite a bit. She helps to watch over him, and I’m never entirely sure what she knows and doesn’t know regarding the goings-on. She doesn’t seem to have a lot of depth to her so far.

Now, normally I wouldn’t expect to know all of these things yet in such a short piece of writing. But the thing is, if you’re going to break a story off in such short lengths, you need to make the first one stand well alone. The reader ought to at least have a handle on the general shape of the story and world before they have to decide whether they want to buy the next installment. I didn’t get that from Larkspur.

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Review: “Ritual Magic,” Eileen Wilks

Pros: Interesting new stakes and threat
Cons: Later on in the book I would have liked to see a little more of Julia
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ritual Magic is book ten in Eileen Wilks’s “World of the Lupi”. It’s an urban fantasy in which the main character is a human, Chinese FBI agent with magic sensitivity. Lily is a refreshing change of pace from the ubiquitous sarcastic 20-something UF heroine. Rule, her lupine ‘mate’, is also a nice change from the usual swaggering machismo of many male UF heroes; he has a smooth demeanor, can be very charming, and cares very much for Lily and her sometimes-surprising family.

In Ritual Magic, Lily and Rule’s wedding is coming up very soon. Lily’s mother, Julia, has been working hand-in-hand with Rule to arrange the whole thing. At a family dinner, Julia loses most of her memories–she believes she’s 12 years old, and waking up in the body of an adult among people she’s never met has (understandably) sent her over the edge. Luckily grandmother’s friend Sam (a dragon) is willing to do what he can to stabilize Julia’s mind. Otherwise she might go the way of some other recent victims and slip into a coma from which she’ll never return.

 

Julia’s memory loss happened extremely suddenly, leaving Lily with few leads to follow. She’s a sharp woman, however, and with some help from a ghost, a dragon, her own sense of magic, the lupi, and the FBI (I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone in there) she gradually puts together an idea of what’s going on. Meanwhile terrible creatures are summoned to go after Lily, some old enemies return, and it starts to look like poor Julia might forever be a 12-year-old in an adult’s body. Watching Julia try to deal after her mind was stabilized–especially as she ends up hanging out with Rule’s son, is fascinating. It’s handled extremely well. My only tiny complaint is that I would have liked to see a little more from her point of view during the climax of the novel.

There’s plenty of fascinating material in Ritual Magic. This is a tough mystery to crack, and there’s a lot of danger all around. There’s also a new and interesting bad guy that forces Lily and Rule to turn temporarily away from worrying about a major enemy. And after nine books gradually leading up to a wedding, Lily and Rule aren’t willing to back down in book ten, even though danger erupts all over the place.

As usual Wilks’s characters have depth and interest, and manage to break many cliches of the modern urban fantasy. Lily and Rule are fantastic protagonists. I love that while there have been other romantic relationships that have formed in the series, it isn’t the modern standard one-couple-per-installment, and the relationships themselves have plenty of variety to them. The mysterious bad guy and his relationship with his latest follower definitely kick things up a notch, and force Lily and her family and friends to dig deep in order to saved the world and people they love. Lily also has to face some interesting moral quandaries of her own, regarding when it’s okay to kill in the pursuit of her goals.

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Review: “Within,” Keith Deininger

Pros: Some imaginative horror
Cons: Odd info-dumps; too many characters
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.
Expected release date: 5/5/2015

 

Keith Deininger’s Within was all right, but didn’t particularly pull me in. It’s a story about Upshaw Mansion, the strange person who lives there and throws constant parties, and the people who live near the mansion (or get pulled into it in other ways). It’s a horror tale, with plenty of blood, insanity, and pain. It reminds me a bit of Clegg’s The Abandoned, except less random. It’s sort of a haunted-house story, and sort of a haunted-town story, has the requisite history to qualify for being built on a terrible place, and of course is capable of coughing up lakes of blood at a moment’s notice.

There’s a ton of characters; I couldn’t keep track of them all. That made it difficult to care for most of them. Ultimately I think Deininger picked the right few characters to fight through things–they were the easiest to empathize with–but I wish more of the story had concentrated on them. It felt like the author spread the story too thin. Also, until toward the end there weren’t really many surprises. I was more than 50% of the way through the book before I felt like there was a story coming together underneath it all.

There are a few good quotes here and there:

Parties are not places to be insecure with reality.

I love that quote. It feels like it belongs in a terrific, mesmerizing tale, but the rest of the writing really didn’t live up to it. The story had its own window-dressing of course, but the crucial elements were all highly familiar. I also had trouble understanding why the author spent so much time on certain characters. There’s one whom we almost never see who for some reason rated a pretty long introduction (one which cut the tension at the beginning to almost nothing). Some of these unnecessary sections had a stream-of-consciousness feel that made them stand out even more.

There’s definitely something good here, but it felt like the author had trouble figuring out how to start the story off.

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Review: “Witches with the Enemy,” Barb Hendee

Pros: Fantastic mystery, politics, murder, mayhem, crazy people, and red herrings
Cons: Sometimes characters are a little slow on the uptake
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.
Expected publication date: May 5, 2015

 

Sisters Amelie and Celine lived in abject poverty until they came into their power as seers: Amelie can see a person’s past, and Celine can see a person’s future. Because of this they ended up serving Prince Anton in trying to solve a mystery. He gave them an apothecary’s shop in the village near the castle, and now they live a fairly comfortable life. Amelie and Celine are very different: Celine thinks the best of people, is kind, and uses her skills as an apothecary to help people. Since she spent her childhood pretending to be a seer before she developed her powers, however, she’s very good at reading people and at lying to them. Amelie on the other hand is very straightforward, prefers men’s clothes to women’s, can fight well and lies poorly.

Now Prince Anton has agreed to help his psychotic brother, Damek, solve a murder that threatens to derail a betrothal. Anton brings Amelie and Celine with him, even though they grew up under Damek’s rule and know how terrible life beneath him can be. It’s even worse when Damek figures out that Anton cares for Celine, because more than anything he enjoys ripping apart things that Anton cares about. There are quite a few people present as Rochelle’s family negotiates her marriage to Damek, but Rochelle’s family seems to be dying around her.

 

Witches with the Enemy: A Novel of the Mist-Torn Witches by Barb Hendee is a highly enjoyable read. Anton is becoming an interesting character. And while his brother Damek is the kind of evil I usually see as cartoonish, it works here. Damek has his own quirks and habits that make him into more than just a standard psychopath.

I love Amelie and Celine. They’re so different and yet so close to each other. Their differences also make it easier for them to seek out information in different ways and from different sources. I love the idea that the kind and optimistic sister is also the better deceiver. It’s interesting to see how they interact with people at various levels of society, and how they gradually learn new ways of dealing with people. I enjoy seeing how they and their relationships with others shift and change in both small and large ways.

The murder mystery is fun. Particularly given Celine’s supposed ability to read people I got a little frustrated when both sisters completely fail to notice some aberrant behavior on others’ parts beyond just “huh, that’s weird.” However, there were still some delightful red herrings that kept things interesting.

On the whole I very much enjoyed the milieu and the murder mystery, and I look forward to more books in the series.

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Review: “Vision in Silver,” Anne Bishop

Pros: Harrowing and delightful
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

There are two major plot threads in Anne Bishop’s Vision in Silver: A Novel of the Others. In one, Meg is helping the Others and the Intuits figure out how best to care for the cassandra sangue, the blood prophets. The girls who’ve been rescued–those who haven’t killed themselves–need very specific care so that they don’t get overwhelmed by either their gifts or their addiction to cutting. They need help understanding who they are and how they can live now that they’re nominally free. In the other thread, relationships between the Others’ Courtyard and the humans of Lakeside (and elsewhere) are coming to a very dangerous head.

Monty’s daughter Lizzy shows up on a train, entirely unaccompanied. Monty has no love for Lizzy’s mother at this point, but he does know she wouldn’t have abandoned her girl like that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Lizzy’s mother to turn up dead, and it seems that Lizzy might have a couple of clues with her that she doesn’t even know about.

Meg is having some difficulties. She’s holding off on cutting as well as she can, but she makes a bad choice and the people around her start to lose their tolerance for her addiction. However, they do try to help her find other ways to get information from her premonitions without cutting. Thanks to some of her insights, there are Intuits who are starting to make progress with the blood prophets they’re attempting to care for.

As is the case in every Anne Bishop book I’ve read, the characterizations are stunning. There’s so much depth to them, and it makes it easy to remember the not-tiny cast. The pacing is fantastic; I had trouble putting the book down (I always wanted to know what would happen next). The schemes going on keep things uncertain and dangerous, and the “Humans First and Last” group is stirring up an awful lot of violent trouble. We see some of the worst of the humans in Lakeside, but we also see some of the best.

I love her worldbuilding. The complex relationships and agreements that keep the peace between humans and the Others are fragile things. It boils down to the idea that humans make things that the Others want, but the Others have control of all of the natural resources needed to make those things. It sort-of works, but it leaves plenty of room for anger and feelings of being cheated on either side.

Although this book wrapped up in a satisfactory manner, I very much would like to see more in the series. There’s clearly plenty of plot left to be explored.

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Review: “The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book,” Weinstein & Scarbrough

Pros: Helpful tips; some good recipes
Cons: Some ‘meh’ recipes
Rating: 3 out of 5

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough’s The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book: 500 Easy Recipes for Every Machine, Both Stovetop and Electric is a useful book. It assumes a 6 qt volume, because that’s the best-selling size and because electric pressure cookers mostly come in that size. Ours is slightly less (5+), but at most that means we cut the ingredient amounts by a very small amount.

I was hoping to find more information on electric vs. non-electric pressure cookers; some people seem to have very strong feelings about which to use, and this cookbook doesn’t go into it at all. It does, however, have directions for both stovetop and electric pressure cookers, which is really handy. Various helpful tips also made me feel much less nervous about pressure cooking (our only other try, the cooker turned out to be defective, so it was… exciting). This time we used my mother’s Kuhn Rikon–an excellent brand, as I understand it.

Kuhn Rikon Stovetop Pressure Cooker

Kuhn Rikon Stovetop Pressure Cooker

Recipes for the pressure cooker are largely simple. Add ingredients–make sure they don’t go over the max fill line–bring up to pressure, cook for the required time, then lower the pressure according to the specific method recommended by the recipe.

The recipes we tried from The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book were decent but not great. Mind you, this cookbook has an awful lot of recipes in it, and we only tested a handful for this review. One soup I liked combined winter squash with chipotle peppers. It seemed a little thin, and while the chipotle flavor was noticeable, it didn’t have a lot of flavor beyond that.

Squash Soup with Chipotle

Squash Soup with Chipotle

There was a chili that worked out well enough. No real difference between it and any other ‘not bad’ chili we’ve made other than the faster cooking time. We also tried out a quinoa and apples recipe, and that was actively not-so-good. It was really bitter, even though the quinoa was thoroughly washed. The bit of vinegar in the recipe seemed to affect the results disproportionately. I didn’t end up eating any of the leftovers.

Quinoa with apples

Quinoa with apples

It’s never a good sign to pick a handful of random recipes and have none of them impress. I do still plan to use the book because it has all the useful directions and pressure/time recommendations. But I’ll certainly work on altering some of the details to suit my taste buds.

 

For added information, here’s a list of the sections in this book:

  • Breakfast
  • Soups (main course and vegetable/grain soups)
  • Meat (beef, pork, and a chapter on lamb, veal, and rabbit
  • Poultry (chicken, but also turkey, game hens, and duck
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Vegetables, Beans, and Grains
  • Desserts

While the recipes don’t come with pictures, there is a sheaf of photos in the middle of the book. The index is useful, and the recipes are organized well/easy to read. If you’ve never used a pressure cooker before this book is useful, but be prepared to alter your recipes to taste.

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Review: “Devil Said Bang,” Richard Kadrey

Pros: Plenty of Stark attitude!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

 

Devil Said Bang: A Sandman Slim Novel is book four in Richard Kadrey’s delightful series. Do not try to jump into the series here. Go back and read it from the start if you can, because this is becoming a very complex world. (Obviously, it’s pretty impossible to review book four without spoilers for the previous books.)

Sandman Slim (or as he prefers, Stark) is a not-quite-human who, through various machinations, got dumped into Hell while still alive. He became a gladiator and assassin right up until he figured out how to get back to the living world. Having partially grown up in Hell, he has some… issues, let’s say. He has difficulty relating to people, and tends to solve most problems with threats and violence. He has some supernatural power, some of which he had before going to Hell, and some of which he learned while there. In this volume, Stark has been maneuvered into taking over as Lucifer in Hell, while the ‘real’ Lucifer goes his own way. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that God has split into several pieces and the denizens of Hell have lost all hope.

Some people are too stupid to even damn themselves properly.

Stark has an unusual personality for an urban fantasy character–he’s a definite anti-hero. He’s impulsive, bullying, and sometimes comes across as a bit slow. Most people underestimate him to their own peril. Stark himself blunders through life, but has some cunning that he hides behind his bluntness and impulsiveness. He’s starting to care about some of the people around him, in his own messed-up way. His love/hate relationship with Kasabian continues, and he of course goes looking for Candy once he finds himself back in the land of the living. Some few people are delighted to see him, while others… not so much.

Stark has one thing that definitely increases his odds of surviving: he’s wearing Lucifer’s armor. Not only does that make it harder to kill him, but Stark starts to realize that much of Lucifer’s power resides in that armor. It holds the key to allow him back into the human world, where he finds that the part of him that split off into a separate person has been causing trouble in his name.

There’s plenty of action, mostly-implied athletic sex, violence, and Stark’s own brand of bluntness. Stark often feels like he should be a bit player, but he half-blunders on into the center of things. If you’ve enjoyed the previous three volumes, you’ll love Devil Said Bang.

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Review: “The Shattered Court,” M.J. Scott

Pros: Sexy, intriguing, and compelling
Cons: A character or two lacking in depth
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.
Expected publication date: April 28, 2015.

 

M.J. Scott’s The Shattered Court: A Novel of the Four Arts introduces us to Lady Sophia Kendall. In just a few days she’ll have her 21st birthday. She has a touch of royal blood–she’s number 32 in line for the throne–and any woman of royal blood has a chance of manifesting earth witchery on her 21st birthday. The amount of power she has (or has not) will mostly determine what sort of marriage match she’ll make. All royal witches are bound to the service of a goddess, and then bound into the service of their husbands. This limits their power and funnels it for others’ uses. Unfortunately for Sophie, an attack on the castle leaves her stranded in the middle of nowhere with only a royal guard (Cameron) for company when she turns 21. Her power comes in loud and clear, but it results in her power becoming tangled with Cameron’s, meaning she can’t be bound to the goddess or a husband. It also means that she and Cameron will be joined at the hip from here on out, and neither of them is sure of how they feel about that–or how the other feels about it. Trust won’t come easily, and there are quite a few people who see them as a threat. Each of them has had a comparatively simple life until now, and that’s about to come crashing down around their ears. But at least they have each other to lean on.

 

It’s one of those mornings when it’s really hard to focus, and I’m not sure where to start in a review of The Shattered Court. It’s filled with excellent intrigue, scheming figures of power, illicit relationships, unusual abilities, unlikely allies, and a constantly changing sense of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. The sex is delightful. I loved the main characters and had enough of a stake in their lives that I felt impatient to get to the betrothals and weddings. I had butterflies in my stomach, and it isn’t all that often that fictional weddings can do that to me. I even shed a few tears here and there, which is a great indicator of an engrossing and emotional read.

Sophie and Cameron are delightful characters. It’s true that there isn’t much surprise to Sophie having unusually powerful gifts, given that this is fiction, but it worked out in interesting enough ways that I didn’t feel let down by that. I would have liked to get to know Cameron’s family a little better, but there may be time for that in later books. I very much want to read the next book now–this is one of those things where you suddenly find yourself at the end of the book going, “It can’t be over yet! I want more!” I also found myself babbling to my husband about the interesting world-building, which is probably the best sign that I’ve gotten sucked into a fictional world. I love the fact that magical power in this world comes with certain expectations and obligations, and I want to learn more about the goddess who has such a hold over the royal witches.

My only minimal complaint is that one of the major villains seemed lacking in depth, but we might find out more in later books, so I wouldn’t worry much there.

I hope the follow-on books come comparatively quickly, because I might go a little nuts waiting!

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Review: “Sebastian,” Anne Bishop

Pros: Fascinating world(s), interesting concepts
Cons: Frustrating relationship developments
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sebastian (Ephemera, Book 1), by Anne Bishop, introduces us to Sebastian–a half-human, half-incubus. He lives in a world of eternal night. It suits him well, but there have been some disturbing events around the edges. The world is made up of little worlds like his–the world as a whole has split into swaths of ‘Ephemera’. It takes powerful Landscapers and Bridges (women and men with power over the land and the roads between lands) to keep the landscapes balanced. Sebastian’s cousin, Gloriana Belladonna, is the most powerful Landscaper, and has been declared a rogue because she dared to create a landscape appropriate for demons rather than humans. She wanted somewhere Sebastian would feel comfortable. Now the landscapes are changing against their Landscapers’ wills. The Eater of Worlds has found a crack in his prison, and he’s working just as hard as he can to bring Darkness to all of the landscapes. He knows that only Belladonna has the power to stop him, so he’s going after her and her friends and family first.

 

One of the major relationships in Sebastian is that between half-incubus Sebastian and the charmingly sweet Lynnea. He believes that she has ended up in his landscape (the Den of Iniquity) by accident and is determined to send her someplace safer. But he just can’t stop thinking about her–partially as an incubus, but also as a man attracted to a woman who intrigues him. I didn’t love Lynnea quite as much as I think I was supposed to, but then I’m mildly allergic to pouting women. I think that got me off on the wrong foot with Lynnea. Certainly later I grew to care about her. Their relationship is, however, the source of most of my frustration with Sebastian. I’ve seen this dynamic before: dark/dangerous man doesn’t want to soil the pure, lovely woman he has feelings for, and feels he must stay away from her in order to protect her safety and her delicate sensibilities. I can see that working for a short while, but he dives back into that rationale too often and for too long.

Gloriana herself intrigued me and drew me in; she’s young and powerful, but everybody is counting on her to destroy the Eater of Worlds and that’s a hell of a responsibility. The ways in which landscapes work is fascinating. Some Bridges lead between specific worlds. Others are ‘resonant’ and will take the traveler to a land that aligns with the resonance of his heart (although will can overcome that, sometimes). Because of the nature of landscapes and the Ephemera, a particularly piercing wish of the heart can alter the world itself. All of Gloriana’s plans carry risks, and she’s afraid.

While this first book in the “Ephemera” series didn’t grab hold of me in the same way that all of Anne Bishop’s other series have, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very good book. Her books in general are just so good that anything not quite up to that high standard pales in comparison. I certainly plan to read the rest of the series, and I look forward to seeing what happens with some of my favorite characters.

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