Review: “Afterburn,” Scott Nicholson

Pros: Intriguing
Cons: Not enough to make me want to read more
Rating: 3 out of 5

Scott Nicholson’s Afterburn: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 1) was a fun read, but wasn’t enough to make me want to read more. The apocalypse came several years ago: intense solar storms wiped out all electronics, killed most of the population of the Earth, and mutated most of the rest. Actual human survivors are few and far between. Rachel (who’s half-mutated) and DeVontay are looking for more supplies and more people. They have a small family–a couple of teens, Rachel’s paranoid grandfather, and a hyper-intelligent mutated baby–they’re trying to support and protect. While they run into new people Lars and Tara and Tara’s little girl, their little family back at the military bunker they’re living in runs into a fragment of the remaining military. Rachel and DeVontay have to help rescue Tara’s girl from a Zap (mutant) who has taken her, while the rest of the family tries to keep the military from taking away everything they’ve worked so hard for.

The mutants are definitely not your run-of-the-mill zombies. Apparently they started out feral and vicious, but swiftly “evolved” and are now hyper-intelligent and advanced. They are relatively sexless, have identical haircuts and weird polymer jumpsuits, and are accompanied by realistic, self-repairing flying bird-drones. Of course, because they’re so unfathomable, and because of their initial violence, humans are determined to kill them. I thought the whole identical haircuts and robot-like behaviors at first weren’t interesting, but their behavior does become creepier as the story advances.

Unfortunately, the story back at the bunker wasn’t nearly as engrossing. The teenage characters feel fairly stereotypical. The conflict with the military felt just as stereotypical. It’s the usual military wanting to murder anything they don’t understand storyline. It may be justified within the story, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting. The only character in that storyline that I found engaging was a woman who used to be a PR person who joined the military after the apocalypse happened. She’s a nice combination of tough-yet-sympathetic.

As post-apocalyptic stories go this isn’t bad, and has some original material in it, but it just didn’t hold my interest sufficiently. I don’t plan to read the rest of the series.

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Short Take: “The Hair Wreath and Other Stories,” Halli Villegas

Pros: Deeply engrossing tales
Cons: Some stories end far too abruptly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, by Halli Villegas, is a wonderful collection of horror and paranormal tales. Particularly at first I felt that some of them ended entirely too abruptly, when they just seemed to be hitting their stride, leaving me saying, “what was that?” They were still intriguing; they just didn’t entirely deliver on that intrigue. I found the rest of them so engrossing, however, that overall I love the book.

Many of the stories are surreal little nuggets. There are mysterious killings, and plenty of ghosts. Some hauntings are paranormally-based while others are purely human. People vanish and people die. Most of these are modern horror, but there’s even one sci-fi story; it’s focused enough on the horror that I think it didn’t particularly break the feel of the book. Many stories’ endings go unexplained (particularly those stories that end precipitously). I found many of the stories, particularly the longer ones, really engrossing. I just wish more of the tales had at least a smidgen of denouement. Or even, in some cases, an actual ending rather than simply a cessation of story.

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Non-Review: “Experimental Film,” Gemma Files

It’s been ages since I last posted a non-review: a brief blurb in which I tell you why, exactly, I was unable to finish reading a book, so you can decide for yourself whether it might interest you anyway. (When I do this, I don’t review the book on Amazon or Goodreads.) In Gemma Files’s Experimental Film, film critic Lois has lost her job as a teacher and spends her time split between reviewing films and taking care of her autistic son, Clark, with her husband Simon’s help. She thinks she may have found a lead on a mysterious piece of old film… and that’s about as far as I got, although it took longer to get there than you might think.

Lois’s specialty is Canadian film, and she goes into this in exquisite(ly painful) detail. I usually like learning new things, but I read way more than I ever wanted to about surrealistic films. Or, to quote Lois’s narrative:

[Experimental film] “WANTS to bore you, to annoy you, to put you in a trance and force you to meet it halfway.”

Well I wouldn’t say that the book put me in a trance, but it did bore and annoy me. I really wanted to like it, because I was interested to read more about Clark and his problems and how Lois and Simon handled them, and how that would interact with the main storyline. But instead at some point I looked down and saw that my e-reader estimated another six hours left in the story. The idea of reading that rambling, slow narrative for that much longer completely and utterly turned me off.

So, if you’re in the mood for something very slow, with a lot of random stuff about surrealist Canadian fimmaking, then go for it. I have it on the authority of a friend who finds film fascinating that he loved this book. Me, I’d rather go back to studying for my anatomy exam. Since I usually agree with his taste in books, I’ll put it down to the fact that he’s a bit of a film buff and I’m decidedly not.

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Review: “The Night Inside,” Nancy Baker

Pros: Interesting vampire novel
Cons: Didn’t entirely hold my attention
Rating: 4 out of 5

Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside is a 1990s vampire tale. Dimitri Rozokov has been asleep for 90 years, only to wake up and be taken prisoner. He’s held in a cell in an abandoned asylum, and history student Ardeth Alexander is not the first abductee to be brought in as a blood source to keep him alive. But she is the first one to come to the conclusion that becoming a vampire like Rozokov is the only way the two of them can get free. She was always a dedicated, precise student, but the lust for blood causes her to cut loose. And when she and Rozokov escape, and he abandons her to make her own way, she re-makes herself–only to find that the life of a vampire isn’t so easy. Just to start with, the people behind those who took them prisoner are still after them. And Ardeth’s sister Sara refuses to believe she’s dead.

This isn’t the most engrossing tale ever, and it has a fairly relaxed pace. But it’s still nicely written. The characters are what bring this alive, the slow drawing of hunger and guilt and rage. Rozokov is an interesting figure, capable of being seductive but hiding among the street people when he realizes he’s not sure how to fit in after being asleep for 90 years. I like that while Ardeth tried to remake herself as a vampire–and somewhat succeeded–there’s still a trace of her old self there. And her relationship to her sister Sara isn’t entirely straightforward or easy, no matter how much Sara wishes to find her sister.

Also, while Ardeth would rather not kill to feed, accidents do happen, particularly early on when she isn’t entirely in control. This leads to some additional problems for her. There’s a weird sort of incestuous vibe between her and Rozokov–they kiss like lovers, but he calls her daughter or child a couple of times. Also, there’s some dark sexual material in here, so be aware of that before you decide whether to read this. In the beginning those who hold the vampire captive are using him to make snuff films while they wait for instructions from their employers for what to do with him. Which… is just weird, and feels kind of unlikely and random, and thus a bit contrived.

This isn’t a fast-paced book, but whether that’s a negative or not depends on your mood or tastes. I found it a little slow, but it unfurls well.

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Review: “The Silent Corner,” Dean Koontz

Pros: Detailed world-building; tension
Cons: Too depressing for me right now; starts out a bit slow and rambling
Rating: 4 out of 5

I’d heard of Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk novels, and I am overall a fan of his work, so I decided to read the first volume of the series to see what I thought: The Silent Corner: A Novel of Suspense (Jane Hawk). I’m not as wowed by it as some reviewers seem to be, but it’s certainly good work. Jane is an FBI agent on leave from the Bureau after her Marine husband, Nick, kills himself. She refuses to believe he was in a state of mind where he could commit suicide, and she starts looking a little more closely at suicide statistics. What she finds is alarming. There’s a noticeable uptick in the suicide rate of late, and most of those additional suicides seem to be committed by people who had no reason to kill themselves and weren’t exhibiting any kind of depression or similar illness. Moreover, a handful left notes behind that display a sort of strangeness, in some cases an indication that they’re fighting against some sort of outside influence. Shortly after Jane gets into this, someone breaks into her house and threatens her five-year-old son with much worse than death (trigger warning for seriously dark abuse threats). Suddenly she doesn’t know who she can trust, and she’s forced to hide her son with friends while she goes on the run. After all, the only way to guarantee that these bastards don’t harm her or her son is to expose them all.

Koontz’s trademark style is somewhat rambling (particularly early on) and rather purple:

Two months earlier, when all this started, she learned that not all cops were on the side of the righteous, that in this dangerous time when shadows cast shadows of their own, when darkness often passed for light, the just and the unjust wore the same face.

It’s one of those things where either you enjoy it or can put up with it, or you don’t and you can’t. While the rambling toward the beginning tends to make me a bit impatient, the somewhat turgid prose can be fun when I’m in the mood for it. Anyway, the pacing starts to pick up about a quarter of the way through or thereabouts, so it isn’t too bad.

The mood of the tale is very dark and dour. There’s an overwhelming conspiracy going on that follows Jane everywhere. Everything is stacked against her, to the point that it’s kind of depressing, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine how she’ll be able to stay off the radar for any length of time. Eventually even an old friend of hers is turned against her in the worst way. Again, it’ll depend on what you’re up for as a reader–if you read for light escapism, this isn’t your book. If you enjoy vast conspiracies and overwhelming odds, then have at it.

The characterization has some very nice depth to it, at least in the case of the good guys. Some of the bad guys are a bit cartoonish, including a particular ‘roid-raging thug who kind of disappears partway through. The world-building is nice. There’s quite the conspiracy going on involving nanotechnology and some very bad people putting it to very evil uses. As usual, Koontz is a master of tension, building it up (once the story finds its footing) and turning it into a freight train of plotting that makes it tough to put the book down.

This isn’t the best Koontz I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly well worth a read. As long as you’re in the right mood, at least.

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Review: “Forged in Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Fantastic extended fight scenes; moving ending
Rating: 5 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Forged in Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Protector Book 5) is an excellent conclusion to both the five-book “The Protector” sub-series and the fifteen-book collection covering the entire Triumvirate (links to all three collected sub-series can be found at the bottom). Nix has had a long journey so far. She was accused of murder and had to prove her innocence. She discovered where her unusual life magic came from and found her family. She fell for a half-vampire. She found out that several dragons are still alive–just hidden–and that she has to stop an evil creature called Drakon from taking their magic for himself. Now, it’s time for the final battle. She’s going to try to stop Drakon from finding an artifact that he needs, but let’s face it: we all know it won’t be that easy. Oh, did I say easy? Because she’s going to have to prove she’s worthy of the Greek gods themselves to try to get to that artifact first. Then she’ll have to follow that up by raising an army to fight Drakon and save the dragons.

On the one hand, Nix’s having to constantly prove herself worthy of various entities via trials and challenges is getting repetitive. On the other hand, it’s a great way to keep the action quotient up without having to resort solely to fights (even though there are plenty of those, too). It also goes nicely with the Indiana Jones-ish vibe Hall has going on and fits in with the notion of prophecies and fate. So honestly, I’ll roll with it.

There are a ton of fight scenes, some quite long. The final battle is extensive and complex, with some fantastic teamwork on the part of the good guys. I’ve always loved the fact that the characters in these books need to work with others, but it never undercuts their own agency and strength.

The characters are great, although I will say Drakon never truly rises above the level of force of nature. On the other hand, though, maybe that’s another thing that just fits right into the prophecies/fate/larger-than-life thing the author has going on. We get to see more of Ares and Nix together, although everything remains PG-rated (things happen behind closed doors). It’s also becoming clear that we’ll see more of Ana and Bree in further books, as the Triumvirate can’t help noting the similarities between the young girls and themselves.

Forged in Magic is my favorite of the Dragon’s Gift novels so far, which is entirely appropriate given that it’s the culmination of the Triumvirate’s story arc. There might have even been a few tears shed toward the end…

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Review: “Enemy of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Some fantastic extended fight scenes
Cons: Small inconsistencies
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Enemy of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Protector Book 4) continues Nix’s tale as she attempts to puzzle out her task in the Triumvirate and her role as representing Life. She’s discovering more and more powers over plant life and is getting better at using them. But now she discovers that her home realm is under attack by her enemy, Drakon. There’s a mysterious dome over the village, and nothing can get in or out. Also one of their FireSoul friends, Alton, has gone missing. How will Nix and her sisters-by-choice Cass and Del find enough time and resources to find and free their friend while also pursuing their destiny?

I seem to recall that originally Cass wasn’t able to transport into the realm Nix comes from; Ares was able to because of his own special powers. So why is it that, this time around, everyone and their brother seems to be able to transport there? Maybe I missed a brief explanation, but I don’t remember anything that addressed it.

The group ends up splitting up for a bit, and there’s a marvelous extended Indiana Jones-like sequence in Norway that involves ghost ships, dark dwarves, light elves, winged serpents, and a valkyrie. I also love the extended fight scenes that take place in Nix’s home realm. A few side characters make a comeback and help to keep the action quotient up–Ana and Bree bring their tricked-out “buggy” along for a wild ride. We also get to find out more about the dragons–what happened to them, and how they relate to FireSouls!

I also have to love a character who names their familiar plant-dragon “Jeff”. Nix is a little bit crazy when it comes to the risks she takes, yet she never loses that wholesome vibe she has. She’s a nice, original character in a series that sometimes gets a bit formulaic. She also has good chemistry with her romantic interest, Ares. The two of them get to spend a little time together in this one, though of course things are proceeding at a pace that prevents much time for snuggles.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the fight with Drakon ends. He’s such a massively powerful enemy, and the stakes are so high now.

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Review: “Origin of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Interesting plot and characters
Cons: Some formulaic elements
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In book one of Linsey Hall’s The Protector, Nix was accused of murdering an ally of the vampires, and had to prove her innocence. In so doing, she kicked off her own task in the Triumvirate’s prophecy, and discovered a mysterious cult of dragon-tattooed men and demons. In book two, she had to make her way through several potentially deadly trials in order to prove herself an ally of the vampires and thus gain their secrecy regarding her identity as a FireSoul. Not only did she succeed, but the vampires’ goddesses of fate insisted that the vampires needed to help Nix with her task. In Origin of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Protector Book 3), Nix discovers that the bad guy she’s hunting is also hunting her. She needs to use a special artifact to puzzle out an ancient prophecy regarding the dragons, but first she’s going to have to track down an old man who knows how to make a particular potion. Along the way she’ll discover her home, find out the origins of her new and unusual powers, and nearly get killed several times over.

There’s an ongoing plot about an artifact with indecipherable powers. In this installment Nix finds out that she needs to use it in conjunction with a particular potion to puzzle out the meaning of an encrypted prophecy. Del speculates about her ability to use her time-turning power to get in touch with the person who created the artifact. This left me wondering why she couldn’t just turn back time to a point where the beaker was filled with potion. That does seem to be the sort of thing she should do, given how her powers have behaved in the past. This is part of why I don’t like history-altering powers. They tend to break worlds and create plot holes.

I’m finding Nix’s new powers over plant life to be fascinating. Also her slowly growing connection to Ares–which, as it turns out, allows him to track her. I still find Nix and Ares to be the best of the three romantic couples, even though the whole “bulked, handsome, powerful, unusual, disgustingly wealthy boyfriend” thing is repeated as a formula for all three women.

Although the bad guy is still fairly one-dimensional, the rest of the characters get plenty of attention. I particularly like Nix’s mother–it’s nice that the protagonists aren’t the only badass women in these books. They are as a whole depicted as strong characters. The lands surrounding the bad guy’s stronghold are also interesting, as is the local guide the women find. The effects of the bad guy’s evil on the land are fascinating.

This isn’t my favorite of Hall’s Dragon’s Gift novels, but I’m still enjoying the ride and look forward to the next installment.

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New military sci-fi story bundle!

I’m so addicted to these story bundles. Now there’s a new Valor: Military Science Fiction story bundle. I know I’m grabbing it!

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Review: “Trial By Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Great fun
Cons: Semi-formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Trial by Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Protector Book 2) is an excellent continuation to the Dragon’s Gift world. In book one of the sub-series “The Protector” Nix was accused of murdering an ally of the vampires. The vampires don’t believe in innocent until proven guilty, so she was forced to prove her innocence or risk death. Ares, the Enforcer of the vampires and one-third of their government, was in charge of investigating the crime–though he began to develop feelings for Nix. Luckily Nix proved her innocence and dealt with the murderer–but not before finding out that her portion of the prophesied Triumvirate’s tasks has begun, and has something to do with a cult of people with dragon tattoos. In book two, Nix finds out that the other two-thirds of the vampire government, Doyen and Magisteria, haven’t decided yet that they’ll keep her secret from the Order of Magica. First, Nix must pass several trials to prove herself a worthy ally of the vampires. Ares will be with her the whole way, but for the most part he isn’t allowed to help her–and the tests can be deadly.

Nix is my favorite of the Triumvirate. She’s as snarky as Del and Cass, but in a more whimsical and silly way, and she has a kind of sensitivity and wholesomeness to her that’s unusual in urban fantasy. Since these books can get a bit formulaic, it’s nice to see something refreshing. I also like the fact that her sensitivity in no way stops her from being a smart, tough badass. Ares and Nix are also my favorite couple. It feels like the author has become more comfortable with writing mild romance in each character’s sub-series. So Cass and Aidan didn’t have a lot of chemistry, Roarke and Dell had more, and Nix and Ares have the most.

The trials plot is handled well. Sure, it’s just an excuse to put Nix through hell and have Ares forced to choose between following his people’s rules or helping her, but the tension is real. The ending is never in doubt, but new and interesting things are learned along the way. Nix is forced to draw harder on her powers than ever before. She and Ares are drawn closer together. She even makes a few new friends along the way.

We also get a little bit of a peek into Nix’s upcoming ‘task’. We don’t entirely know what it is, but she encounters more of the weird cult members and gets a few pointers from some goddesses of fate. (That’s right–we’re cranking up the epic level!) Of course I’m going to have to hang on for the ride and see where Nix’s fate takes her!

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