Review: “Stolen Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Some high stakes; kick-ass protagonist
Cons: A bit formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Stolen Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Huntress Book 3) is the third installment in Linsey Hall’s fun urban fantasy/paranormal series. When book one opened, three fifteen-year-old girls found themselves in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of their own identities. However, they knew they were on the run from a Monster, and they knew what they were: FireSouls, able to absorb the powers of dying Magica and shapeshifters. Their kind is feared and hated, and so they know they have to be careful who they trust. Over ten years they gradually settle down in Oregon in a city full of magic, and open a shop where they sell magical artifacts. Nix is the Protector, who watches over the shop and duplicates the magical items they hunt down. Del is the Seeker, who researches the items they hunt and takes on demon-hunting jobs on the side. Cass is the Huntress, and it’s her job to play Indiana Jones, hunting down and retrieving the artifacts.

In book one, Cass got roped into hunting down a scroll that could give away the secrets she and her sisters-by-choice are hiding, and she had to hide it from the man who hired her. Despite this, Aidan managed to figure out Cass’s secret–but instead of turning her in, he insisted on helping her learn how to control her power. In book two, Cass got guilted into helping the shapeshifter Alpha Council find a missing girl, despite the fact that she’s terrified the Council could figure out what she is–and in fact, one of them did. She also encountered the Monster–briefly–and lost an incredibly powerful artifact to him. Also, her friends Connor and Claire found out that she and her sisters are FireSouls. In this latest installment, someone attacks the museum where Cass’s friend Dr. Garriso works and is trying to analyze a chalice that the Monster wants. Garriso gets sucked through a portal, and the group has to retrieve him. Unfortunately the portal starts to expand, gradually enveloping the museum and threatening to destroy the entire city! Cass and Aidan must travel to Europe to find someone who can Nullify the portal’s power–easier said than done, of course.

Without saying too much about the ending, I’ll just say that this book breaks the usual urban fantasy formula by having some honest-to-god consequences that feel meaningful and harsh, and that affect the ongoing story. I’ll be a little put out if the rest of the series undoes them too quickly, but I’m optimistic. This is a good series, after all.

The world-building is worked in well. I wouldn’t start at this installment, and it’s easy to find the first two books so you don’t have to, but if it’s been a little while since you read book two (or your memory is as bad as mine is) it’ll be fine. We’re starting to get a bit of a better idea of why FireSouls are so feared and hated–not only do they have the capacity to absorb a dying person’s powers, but they become addicted to the feeling and corrupted by the ever-growing hunger for power. Cass is having to struggle with her own desire to slurp up the powers of the nearby not-quite-dead-yet, and it’s nice to see a reasonable depiction of this. I.e., sure she wants to keep from becoming power-mad, but at least she also recognizes that in the arms race to avoid and beat the Monster, having extra powers can only help. Too many stories focus on the moral dilemma while ignoring the practical one, so I was grateful to see Hall’s take on it.

I love the fact that Aidan clearly respects Cass. Particularly in this day and age, that’s sexy as hell. Honestly, I like it even more than the fact that he’s sexy, powerful, and wealthy when considering whether I’d like to see them end up together. Which obviously they will, but I like that it’s a relationship I can buy into and not feel guilty about. Meanwhile, Cass is a delightfully kick-ass protagonist. She needs others’ help–she isn’t a Mary Sue–but she can fight both physically and with magic, she’s very brave, and she thinks fast on her feet. Delightful!

I’m definitely enjoying this series, and look forward to volumes four and five!

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Review: “Mirror Mage,” Linsey Hall

Pros: World-building; tense action
Cons: A bit formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Mirror Mage (Dragon’s Gift: The Huntress Book 2) is just plain fun to read. Cass and her sisters-by-choice Del and Nix are FireSouls–they can absorb the magical powers of anyone they kill, and that makes their very existence highly illegal. They woke up in a field at age 15 with no memory except the awareness of what they are–and the fact that they’re on the run from a Monster. Now that they’re 25 they’ve settled into a town filled with magical people, and they use their abilities to hunt down magical artifacts to sell. Cass is the Huntress–while Nix minds the store and ‘fixes’ the artifacts to sell and Del divides her time between bagging demons for money and researching the artifacts, it’s Cass’s job to actually get the artifacts. Unfortunately, she was roped into finding a text that could reveal her and her sisters for what they are by a wealthy shapeshifter named Aidan. She managed to keep the scroll from him, but now he and another shifter, Mathias, need her help. The Alpha Council of the shapeshifters wants her to track down a missing girl and an extremely powerful artifact. Lives are at stake, as well as a hefty payment, leading Cass to help them against her better judgment.

The setup of the series is a bit urban-fantasy-formulaic, but it’s a fun formula, so I don’t mind. Aidan is trying to help Cass learn to control her powers so she can better protect herself when “the Monster” inevitably comes for her and her sisters. Naturally she’s attracted to him but not quite sure yet if she can trust him (not that she seems to have a choice right now). There’s a definite spark between these characters, so I’m rooting for their inevitable relationship, I admit.

Aidan is close to being the urban fantasy/romance stereotype of tall, powerful, wealthy and cocky, but the author nicely rounds him out with a goodly dollop of kindness and seriousness. It makes him more attractive. Also, while he cares about Cass and is protective of her, he’d rather help her learn to harness her powers than try to keep her from heading into danger, which I love about him. I wish there had been a bit more detail put into the bad guys, but we do get our first glimpse of the Monster, at least.

There are plenty of good fights in here, and of course there’s a nice tomb-robbing heist to start things off. I love the lengths the sisters go to in order to keep their operation “legal” in magical society terms.

The world-building details are worked into the story much more smoothly in this installment. I’m not sure it would necessarily be enough if you haven’t read the first book, but it’ll definitely fill you in if it’s been a while (or your memory is as bad as mine is). I do want to know how the Monster has avoided getting thrown into the magical prison the sisters fear so much. After all, the story makes it seem like they’ll get thrown in jail the moment someone gets a whiff of what they are, yet the Monster is clearly doing some truly evil things and yet has been getting away with it for at least ten years that we know of. I hope that gets expanded upon.

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Review: “Ancient Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: World-building and plot
Cons: Awkward start
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Ancient Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Huntress Book 1) was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m glad of that recommendation! It begins with three girls who find themselves in a field with no memory of who they are. They have the intense urge to run and hide, so they do so, then begin piecing together what they do remember. They’re FireSouls, who inherited portions of a dragon’s soul and have the ability to steal other magic users’ abilities upon killing them. Because of this, they know that if they’re ever found out, they’ll go straight to the prison of the magical world. Over time they find a magical city in which to settle down, and they take up treasure hunting as a means of making a living–after all, their dragon souls give them the ability to track anything they want badly enough and know something about. Cass is the Huntress–while Nix minds the shop and works with the magical artifacts they sell and Del hunts demons, Cass breaks into ancient temples and recovers magical treasures. There’s just one problem with her current assignment: the demon protecting the chalice she’s recovering knows she’s a FireSoul! Worse, an incredibly powerful shapeshifter named Aidan realizes the chalice is missing and tracks her down to get her help recovering a different artifact, one that could reveal her and her sisters’ natures. Somehow she’s going to have to get the scroll before Aidan does and destroy it without his knowing about it–a nearly impossible task made all the more difficult by her attraction to Aidan. (Note that this is an urban fantasy set in the modern world with planes and phones and espresso and so on.)

The start is both clever and awkward. It manages to nicely deliver all and only the background information the author wishes us to have, but having several people just sit around baldly taking turns delivering the information straight out is simply awkward. I look forward to seeing whether and how the remaining books set context in comparison.

The characters are relatively standard for paranormal/urban fantasy, but they’re well-drawn. They’re snarky and spunky and strong yet flawed. In particular I love the ways in which the women’s dragon souls make them a bit covetous of anything they might define as treasure; it livens things up a bit and adds a nice touch of interest. Also while Adrian is a bit on the stereotypical wealthy, cocky hunk side, he’s capable of being serious and kind, which gives him some depth. I did find myself rooting for a relationship between him and Cass.

I like the ways in which the women have managed to rely on their strengths while simultaneously hiding the most suspicious of their abilities. Their treasure-hunting business is original and interesting, particularly the ways in which they manage to keep it from being “illegal” in the eyes of the magical world.

Overall this is a fun and interesting book and I look forward to reading more of the series.

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Short Take: “Silver Shark,” Ilona Andrews

Pros: Fit so much world and character into a limited space; sexy
Rating: 5 out of 5

I can’t get enough of the work by the husband-and-wife team writing as Ilona Andrews, so I’m back with Silver Shark (The World of Kinsmen Book 2). In this futuristic society, people have been physically modified to give them heightened abilities, and have gathered together into families that rule financial empires. Claire is from a planet run by warring mining ventures. She’s a hugely talented telepath who was taken from her mother at age fourteen and drafted into the war effort. When the war ends and her side loses, she’s deported to another planet. She manages to hide her telepathic proficiency from everyone and goes to work as a business admin to a kinsman, Venturo, who is also a hugely talented telepath (and whom she develops some very strong feelings for). When some of her fellow refugees face possible deportation back to the war zone–a fate that would certainly result in death–she risks her new life to help them by using her secret abilities.

It isn’t too hard to figure out the general shape of how the story will play out, particularly if you’ve read book one and have some idea of the feel of the series, but that didn’t detract from the story in the least. I absolutely love the characters and couldn’t wait to find out how things would work out between them. This book only took a couple of hours to read, but the worldbuilding and character development were surprisingly on point for all of that. I thought the writing was vivid and engrossing, and I genuinely felt for the characters and wanted to see more of them. If you’ve read book one, you’ll briefly get to see the main characters of that novel in here again, which is a nice touch. There’s a sexy touch of erotic romance to this one as well, and it’s handled beautifully. I wish there were more books in this series!

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Short Take: “Silent Blade,” Ilona Andrews

Pros: Fascinating world and characters; sexy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I wanted a short book I could read while waiting for classes to start and the bus to arrive, and I adore the writing of husband-and-wife team Ilona Andrews, so when I discovered the novella Silent Blade (The World of Kinsmen Book 1) I had to give it a shot. I’m very glad I did.

In the future, wealthy families that have been genetically and technologically enhanced, called “kinsmen,” rule vast empires. Meli was the daughter of a minor family, and when she was ten years old she was betrothed to a teenaged boy from another family. When she was old enough to marry he had gained enough power and influence to be able to call the marriage off–but no one would risk going near her for fear he might change his mind. She chose to excise herself from her family, giving up its money and influence while using her own unique talent to become a deadly assassin for her family’s ends. Eventually she retires, but her father asks her to do one more job: kill Celino, the man who tossed her aside. They expect she’ll take the job due to her hatred of Celino, but to be truthful she doesn’t really hate him. She’s angry at how he did what he did, but she understands all too well why he wanted to be free.

Celino and Meli are unusually suited to each other. They’re both ruthless and deadly, for one. For another, when she expected to marry him she studied all of his interests. Don’t worry–this isn’t portrayed as her having no interests of her own or making her own opinions subservient to his. Instead she sometimes disagrees with his opinions and likes and dislikes no matter how well-considered they are. The story of how they come together and get to know each other is wonderful and sexy and I loved it enough to pick up the other book set in this world. The characters have more depth than I expect from a story of this length, and the world, while briefly drawn, is vivid.

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Halloween Horrors Storybundle!

Well, I’m sunk. I’m not even close yet to finishing the books from the previous storybundles I got, and here’s one for Halloween Horrors!

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Short Take: “The Sleep Tight Motel,” Lisa Unger

Pros: Vivid, melancholy, and beautiful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lisa Unger’s novella The Sleep Tight Motel (Dark Corners collection) is hauntingly beautiful. Eve is on the run from her abusive boyfriend Erik after unwillingly helping him to rob her place of business. She pulls over at the Sleep Tight Motel, where the sweet proprietor, Drew, makes her a lovely breakfast, offers to talk, and gently encourages her to stop and rest. When she tries to run–both from the police and from Erik–her car refuses to start, and Drew’s unable to get it to run. She knows Erik isn’t far behind her, but she’s just so tired…

The other Dark Corners collection novellas I’ve been reading are mostly horror; this volume is more of a melancholy paranormal with a vein of horror running through it. It’s absolutely lovely and sad. It explores all of the different emotions that can make a certain kind of bad relationship seem so difficult to leave. It doesn’t make things simple or easy. The story of Eve and the odd little motel is vivid and clearly drawn, and I was riveted to the page. The characters have so much depth in just a small space. This is a rather short tale and I don’t want to ruin anything for you, so I’ll just say that I think this is a lovely tale that’s well worth reading.

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Ligotti’s “Autumnal”

If you have a few spare moments, read the super-short story Autumnal by Thomas Ligotti. I’ve read thousands of books, and I have a terrible memory, yet throughout the years this has remained my favorite short story. “Autumnal” is from his collection Noctuary [my review from 2001], also one of my all-time-favorite books.

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Short Take: “Hannah-Beast,” Jennifer McMahon

Pros: Enthralling
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jennifer McMahon’s novella Hannah-Beast (Dark Corners collection) tells a short, but engrossing, Halloween story. Amanda won’t let her daughter Erin go out trick-or-treating dressed as “Hannah-Beast,” the local scary legend. Decades earlier Amanda and her friends took not-entirely-bright outcast Hannah out trick-or-treating, in a tale that ends in fire and death. Amanda’s never told Erin she was involved in the events, and Erin is outraged that she has to go out as a cat yet again. Amanda stays in handing out treats and carving a pumpkin, only to receive a bit of a visitation.

This is a rather traditional scary story, and McMahon spins it beautifully. Every detail of Hannah’s fateful Halloween is constructed like a piece of artwork, paralleling Amanda’s present day fears. For such a short story the characters have a fair amount of depth, and the tale is vivid and complete. I won’t say much more, because the experience of reading it is really where the fascination lies, and of course I don’t want to ruin the ending. If you’re looking for a short horror story that’s nice and dark, Hannah-Beast will keep you satisfied.

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Review: “Band on the Run: Rock Band Fights Evil Vols. 1-3,” D.J. Butler

Pros: Utterly fantastic third story; great set-up
Cons: Some inconsistencies
Rating: 4 out of 5

D.J. Butler’s Band on the Run: Rock Band Fights Evil Vols. 1-3 is amusingly creative and unusual. The rock band in question changes its name with every venue to try to avoid those who might be searching for them. The band consists of a bunch of people who’ve been damned who have a beef with Satan. Eddie, the guitar player, tried to sell his soul for musical talent, only he worded the request badly and now he’s the world’s best tambourine player. Mike, the bass player, sees his brother’s vengeful ghost whenever he isn’t blitzed. Jim, the singer who doesn’t speak for fear of drawing unwanted attention, is Satan’s son. Adrian, who plays the electric organ, is a narcoleptic sorcerer. Twitch, the drummer, is an outcast fairy who can turn into a horse or a falcon. Together they’re searching for ways to stay under the radar while simultaneously looking for things that might give them some leverage with the powers that be.

The first of the three volumes in this story is the tale of Mike’s introduction to the band and is told from Mike’s perspective, which makes for an easy introduction via the outsider’s viewpoint. At first he’s just filling in for the night due to the death of the band’s previous bass player, but when a hellhound and a bunch of demonic flies attack, he gets pulled into the fight. When the band realizes he, too, is damned, they decide he can join them. The band goes after an unusual, extremely old mystical talisman of a sort, and goes up against Heaven and Hell to retrieve it.

The second story is told from Eddie’s perspective, which is nice for some variety. The band drops straight into fighting serpentine demons in a small town, and Adrian gets poisoned. In order to save Adrian’s life, the band will have to track down an itinerant preacher, go after a giant Lamia, and prevent the summoning of an ancient Egyptian snake god. The story of the talisman from the previous tale gets totally dropped as if it never existed, and the first fight of the story explodes of out nowhere in a bit of freak timing that makes it feel a little off. Mike also feels a little flimsy as a character this time around. The rest of the tale, however, is very creative and interesting.

The third story is dynamite! It’s told from the perspective of Jane, a very old and powerful woman who’s tracking down the band to take something from them. (Which is to say, the plot from story number one finally reappears, although the item in question is still little more than a MacGuffin.) Jane’s perspective lets us see the band in a whole new light, and her tale is absolutely fascinating. The first two stories mostly showcase the band’s impressive fighting skills, whereas story number three builds up the most wonderful backstory for the world, involving all sorts of Biblical stories, angels, fallen angels, and so forth. Jane is an utterly fantastic character and I totally want to read more about her.

Overall I really enjoyed Band on the Run. I would read more, particularly if Jane was involved. I still want to see more of Jim–his story seems full of potential yet not a lot has been done with it so far.

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