Review: “Cursed Lands” Collection

Pros: A seriously large urban fantasy collection!
Cons: Incredibly scattershot quality
Rating: 3 out of 5

Cursed Lands: A Limited Edition Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Dystopian Collection includes more than 20 tales by a wide array of authors. To be frank, the quality is weirdly scattershot. I rated these stories the full gamut, from one out of five to five out of five. (I rarely give out ones.) Many of these stories are young adult, which I wasn’t expecting since the collection description didn’t note that. However, there’s also explicit sex in a couple of stories, and one tale I’d classify as downright erotica, so it isn’t a YA collection.

Nowhere in the description of this collection on Amazon does it indicate that these stories are meant to serve as samples of the authors’ work and that they may not stand well alone. Unfortunately, quite a few of these stories leave off in the middle of things because they’re meant to introduce you to a world. Some of them are the first books in various series. This was a bit frustrating since I wasn’t expecting it, and I’m not sure I would have bought this collection if I’d known. If, however, you’re looking for a bunch of new series to read, this will be a good resource for you.

Where books are separately available on Amazon as of this writing, I’ve included links to the individual books. Most are only available in this collection right now, however. I’m including one-paragraph reviews of each individual story below–I include the briefest summary of the setup, and then an overview of my major thoughts. Buckle in–this is long!

 

In Emma Hamm’s Cirque de la Lune, disgraced doctor Frank Fairwell is nearly killed by the Pinkertons on order from his (now ex-) fiancée. He’s fished out of the river by a most unusual group of circus freaks who have bizarre abilities. The beautiful miss Evelyn, for instance, can summon fire at will. He falls for Evie like a stone, but needs to find a way to save her (and her friends) from being beholden to a drunken ringmaster who “rents out” Evelyn to wealthy men. My only problem with this story is that it’s basically a tale of the rich, normal man who saves the “freaks” from their horrible life and gets the pretty girl as a reward. Meh. He’s a decent man, though, and the story is heartwarming. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Nina Walker’s Among Shadows introduces us to the New Colony, a post-American dystopian kingdom. Fighting is illegal, so when Tristan is caught getting into fights he’s shipped off to train to be a Royal Officer, thanks to a deal his father cut. The Royal Officers keep in check the hugely dangerous Guardians of Color, or alchemists, who siphon color out of things in order to work magics of various types. The king is a narcissistic and dangerous man, and Tristan isn’t exactly happy about his potential new job. Tristan’s rival Bryce seems to continue to progress through their training not because he’s all that good at what he does, but simply because the plot requires Tristan to have a rival. There’s a bit too much explaining and ‘telling’ going on. And the ending didn’t really satisfy me–you could tell the story was meant as an intro to a larger body of work rather than meant to stand alone. If you’re reading this collection in the hope of finding new authors and series to read, however, this is fine. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Claire Luana’s Orion’s Kiss tells the tale of the reincarnated nymph Merope and her reincarnated enemy, Orion, who kills her sisters in every lifetime. Mer is determined to kill Orion before he can kill her sisters in this lifetime, and recruits her friend Zoe to help her. Naturally, things don’t work out so easily, as it turns out that he isn’t the enemy she thought he was. The friends set out to reverse the curse, hoping to end the cycle of violence. There are some details that didn’t quite add up to me. It was hard to see how Mer and Zoe could keep Orion prisoner for so long without all of their respective parents cluing in more (they’re all teenagers in high school). It was also hard to understand why Mer would not tell Orion about her visions once they’re working together, given that he could presumably help her to attempt to stymie them. The relationship between Mer and Orion, however, is really nice. Rating: 4 out of 5

Dorothy Dreyer’s Crimson Mage introduces us to the dystopian world of the New Asian Administration. The Lotus empress reincarnates on the regular, but there is an entity she loves, yet is in opposition to. That entity wants to destroy the world, and if he can get hold of the latest incarnation of the empress, he might succeed. Mayhara Gautama, 19 years old, set aside her mage powers (she was training to protect the latest empress) when the government overran the palace and outlawed mages. She’s trying to protect her family by toeing the party line. Now she’s being roped back into the game, as the empress has been reincarnated and is in danger. Her Guru Darshana and fellow student Jae-hyun work with her to locate and save the empress, who has fallen under the spell of the bad guys. This is an interesting universe, although most of the magic has to do with tossing around colored balls of light and force, which is kind of generic. It’s much more interesting when it actually gets into the various spheres of influence the colors are associated with. Note that this is not a standalone story. It leaves off in the middle of things. So it’s definitely meant to introduce you to a new world and author, not to serve as a satisfying tale in its own right. Rating: 4 out of 5

Elle Scott’s Behind the Glass introduces us to 17-year-old Eden. She remembers only one thing from before age 12: the bright blue eyes of a young man. She lives in a dystopian future where there’s a curfew, demons supposedly roam the night streets, and drones are used to make sure everyone stays inside. Her world is turned upside down when a madman causes her to use powers she didn’t even know she had. As she gradually regains her memories, she finds out she’s a Nephilim, a half-Angel who was captured and drained of her Grace, causing her to lose her memories. Worse, many of her people have been suffering the same fate, and she finally finds herself in a position to do something about it. I really got sucked in by this story, particularly once we meet the Nephilim. The characters are interesting and the plot is exciting. My only (minor) gripe is that the whole “you’ll remember it soon” seems to be over-used as an excuse to not explain things in a timely and sensible manner. Rating: 5 out of 5

A.J. Flowers’s Daughter of Dragons: An Urban Fantasy Dragon Shifter Romance (Dragon Queen) is a story about a 16-year-old woman named Lily who is turning into a dragon. She’s meant to choose a side when she finally achieves her transformation–the mysterious order that’s trying to kill the dragons, or the dragons, who eat human souls? However, no one will really tell her anything about the two sides, and people are trying to kill her. There are a number of oddities in here. Details that don’t quite add up right, information that comes out of nowhere, plot events that made me say, “huh?” Also, while this states at the end that it’s a standalone novel, it ends in the middle of the story. Rating: 3 out of 5

Shadows & Light, by Krista Street, is the story of Daria Gresham. She’s a healer–a genuine, honest-to-god supernatural healer–who tours in a bus and helps who she can. When she starts receiving threatening emails, and finally an extortion demand, she hires bodyguard Logan Smith. Sparks fly, and she’s further intrigued when she finds she can touch him without being overwhelmed by a sense of his memories, something that doesn’t usually happen when she touches another. When it gets close to the stalker’s deadline, Logan calls in several friends, and things get hairy. My only problem is that part of the exciting climax relies on Daria being uncharacteristically stupid. If it hadn’t been for that, this would have been a perfect little paranormal romance. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Shadow Games, by Alison Ingleby, introduces us to a dystopian future in which the world is divided between upper New Vegas, where the Royal Academy is the greatest goal a young person can strive for, and the lower street world, where gangs rule and people are enslaved. Vesper has to take the final test given by the Academy, only to find out that she has mysterious powers and is deemed a threat to her society. She ends up enslaved in the lower city, training to win in the Games that determine who keeps control of the water wells. The mysterious tests she undergoes ramped up the tension quite well. There’s also a fantastic scene in which she has to prove herself in the Colosseum without knowing what her powers are, and I was totally hooked! The characters and relationships in here are wonderful. Unfortunately the end takes a left turn out of nowhere, and leaves off in the middle of things. Rating: 4 out of 5

B. Kristin McMichael’s Loving the Legend posits a world in which “night humans” (supernaturals) make up a surprisingly large portion of the population. 17-year-old Andrew Lucan is at the mercy of his monstrous uncle, who has him whipped and often keeps him in a cage. Andrew would escape, except he’s fallen in insta-love with Arianna and is determined to grow old with her. He finds out she’s the key to a legend, and… that’s about where we leave off, in this story that doesn’t stand well alone. There’s waaaay too much telling and explaining, and re-explaining, and re-re-explaining. Little actually happens. Andrew determines that he isn’t a stalker, despite the fact that he’s already pretty much planned out his life with Arianna before ever speaking to her and notes that “she had bewitched him” as though it’s her fault he’s being creepy. Out of nowhere of course he determines she’s his “mate”, which is probably the one concept that hasn’t been explained in this morass. As far as I can tell Arianna has no agency at all; she basically does nothing except exist. There are lots of little things that are inconsistent or contradictory or nonsensical. If more than half of the students in the school are night humans, then how do those that survive on blood find enough unawares people to feed on? Since Andrew keeps himself weakened with diluted poison (’cause reasons), where the hell does he come up with poison, especially since he’s guarded night and day? How does his uncle get away with randomly killing one of the teens who guards him as an object lesson without anyone noticing? If Gabriel knows all of the clan members’ thoughts, and Andrew knows this, then how did Andrew think he was successfully surveilling Gabriel? If there are people like Gabriel who can read thoughts so easily, then why does Andrew despair of convincing anyone of what his uncle is doing and paints it as “it was his word against his uncle’s”? Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Ella Wayne’s Alien Discovery read to me like one of those bad “men writing women” examples, in places. Every time the male leads noticed the female lead (Gayle), it was to note how “luscious” her hair was, how “perky” her breasts were. When the female lead notices the male leads, the word “hot” is used repeatedly, and things like “lickably delicious,” even though the woman just woke up in a strange room with strange men wearing strange clothes and no idea of what is going on. She’s just found out that aliens exist and that they’re using her as a “breeder,” and yet the only thing she cares about is that “[h]er hormones were raging”. It seems a bit weird that in a collection so largely devoted to YA, this one is basically just enough plot to string together some alien/human erotica (explicit sex included–she even has to teach the alien about oral sex). She’s “very rare” among genetically compatible breeders, and extremely important to them, yet somehow they deem it a lesser risk to keep sending her back to live among humans, even though she’s retaining some memories and asking a lot of questions. Since she seems perfectly happy to be a breeder, it makes no sense that they don’t arrange her convenient “death” and keep her. She also argues for being able to help them plan strategy by explaining that she plays combat games. Seriously? Then there’s the ways in which the sex is just laughable: “She wrapped her legs around his waist … With one hand he ripped her pants off.” Again, seriously? Supposedly this is about polyamorous relationships in which Gayle basically has a harem of hot male aliens, except that we only get to see her have sex with one of them, so that’s sort of rendered irrelevant. This story could also use another round of editing. Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Stolen Magic, by Char Webster, introduces us to Aria Renault, a magical “guardian” who was left at the altar by Damian Faustus 300 years ago. They constantly snipe at each other when forced to interact, and she obviously has never forgiven him. Of course it turns out he did it to protect her from an evil man named Pravus, who wants to use the magical bond between Aria and Damian to siphon Aria’s unusual pool of magic from her. Pravus has now escaped custody, and Aria and Damon are assigned to catch him, since they’re basically bait. Naturally Damian never told her why he left her at the altar, out of some convoluted, ridiculous belief that would make her less safe. I hate the misunderstanding-because-a-character-was-stupid-and-stubborn method of keeping romantic couples apart. I’m not sure why I’m supposed to like Damian and his friend, when they say things like “She’s kind of hot when she’s not talking.” For 300-year-old supernaturals these people act like stupid kids. Also, “hang out and wait” is not a very interesting method of catching the bad guy. Meanwhile, Pravus is the stereotypical, no-depth, laughs-maniacally bad guy. Also also, after promising to never again keep anything from Aria, Damian still debates over telling her the truth. Then when he wants to get close to her she keeps telling him no and he keeps crowding her–not a good look on him. Rating: 2 out of 5

K.A. Parkinson’s Rune introduces us to 16-year-old Rune Amund, a Chosen one. He has various supernatural powers and is tied to his Watcher, Sorsha, who unfortunately turned to darkness and trained Rune to kill humans instead of the monsters he’s supposed to hunt. Eventually he escaped her, but now he’s been recaptured, and she’s threatening to kill his friends if he doesn’t do what she wants. He’s to get accepted by a mysterious Watcher who’s raising an army, find out how he keeps his army hidden from all detection, and steal the device being used to accomplish this. There’s nothing particularly new in how Rune has to come to accept the things he’s done in order to move forward, but the basic story is solid and entertaining. There are a couple of good battles. Unfortunately one portion of the story gets bogged down by explanation, but it isn’t too bad. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Shades of Human, by J.L. Myers, introduces us to four-year-old Calliope. In a gripping opening, Calli’s mamma is trying to escape something horrible that’s chasing them–a creature that can travel by the puddles of rainwater she runs through. Unfortunately, things don’t end well, and the next time we meet Calli she’s a college student living above a run-down warehouse. She’s being pursued by a mysterious stalker, Adamaris, who also seems to be able to travel by water. Calli’s mother had told her, “Whatever happens, never listen to the voices. Never ask for help. And never accept anything from them, okay?” She also told her never to look in a mirror. Unfortunately, Calli ends up glimpsing her reflection in a mirror, and it’s just enough to cause her to be found by the dark creature that stalked her mother. Adamaris says he’s there to protect her, and he seems to know something about her and her mother, but he’s hard to trust. Normally when a writer sets up the stalker/sexy dynamic, it’s hard to go along with. It’s hard to see how the female lead can look past the stalkery behavior, and why she should. This is one of the better jobs I’ve seen of making the threatening behavior understandable, while also making the attraction understandable. Also, Calli doesn’t just fall over herself for Adamaris–she fights him pretty hard and gives her trust grudgingly. Hell, I’m still not sure whether I trust him (the story leaves off with a number of things left unresolved). My one major complaint is that when he tells her “I never thought your kind would appeal to me,” umm, that’s not a compliment. That’s racism, and it’s ugly. When that gets said in real life–and it does–it isn’t a good thing. Note that this story includes explicit sex. Rating: 4 out of 5

S.K. Gregory’s Bloodlines introduces us to Nova, a tourist with her mother at Stonehenge. She ends up spilling her blood on the ground, freeing the Fae, who are determined to wipe out humanity. Apparently Nova is half-Fae, the product of an experiment, and she’s the only one who can potentially put a stop to the massacre. When she finds a way out of her imprisonment (by the people who are experimenting on her), she finds that three months have passed and most humans are dead. This is the fairly typical setup of a handful of survivors of an apocalypse trying to find a promised safe zone run by the military. Nova tries to pass herself off as human, which doesn’t entirely end well. This story also includes my pet peeve stereotype. Again, this is a story that leaves us with a to-be-continued. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Curse of a Jinn is by Lichelle Slater. Gwen lives in the modern world, but “creatures” have been out in the open almost 40 years. Gwen is so short on money she goes into foreclosed and abandoned houses to find items to pawn. When she happens upon a mysterious painting, she accidentally releases Doren, a jinni. In this world, jinni grant unlimited wishes, but when a wish is granted it siphons some of the wisher’s life energy off to the jinni. Because the jinni is dependent on this energy, it doesn’t tend to twist people’s wishes–after all, the jinni needs the person to keep making wishes. Doren has been locked away for years, hiding from his previous masters. But Gwen is the reincarnation of Zenja, an Egyptian sorceress Doren loved before he became a jinni. Soon Doren’s previous masters come looking for him, to help them destroy an ancient enemy–and Gwen had better get in touch with her magic, fast. There are a couple of things that don’t entirely add up to me. There’s one moment where Doren comes to some sort of realization that allows him to access his power better, and I never understood how that worked. Also, for playing a strong role at the beginning of the story, it’s strange that Gwen’s best friend doesn’t show up again later. There’s also a significant past misunderstanding that feeds into Doren’s background, and I can’t understand how that happened in the first place. The characters are interesting though; Gwen’s a wonderful strong protagonist; and I enjoyed the plot. Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael J. Allen’s Ashes of Raging Water: An Urban Fantasy Action Adventure (Blood Phoenix Chronicles) is another tale that ends in the middle of things (it’s the first book in a series). It introduces us to Quayla, a water phoenix and part of the Shield protecting Georgia from Fae incursions. She’s on probation due to mistakes she’s made in the past, and she is a bit on the reckless side. Her death and rebirth kicks off a series of events involving the police, animal shelters, both Fae courts and the Wyldfae, and her particularly bad relationship with Vitae, the head of the local Shield. I had a few problems with details. The phoenixes change bodies when they’re reborn, yet some people still recognize them, and this didn’t feel like it was consistently handled. Quayla also spends a little much time insisting she handle absolutely everything on her own, despite knowing that the fact that she does so is part of why Vitae thinks her unworthy of being a phoenix. In large part, however, this is a fun book. The Fae courts are interesting. The characters are enjoyable. The worldbuilding is engaging. My favorite character is a D&D-playing morgue doctor named Bradley who’s playing Dr. Frankenstein with troll bone marrow and a dead cat. Rating: 4 out of 5

Lee French’s War of the Rose Covens is one of my favorite stories in this volume. 16-year-old Sophie is a witch who has so little power that her mother’s coven considers her useless. Sophie has left home and is staying with Claire and Drew–she’s formed a new coven with Drew. She goes back home to get a few things and see how her mother will react, and her mother tries to forcefully sever her magical link to Drew by battering open Sophie’s magical inner sanctum. When Sophie goes to another relative to help, they suggest she could prove herself by obtaining a key from inside a power sink. The sink doesn’t act on her as she’s been told it will, however, and soon she finds herself caught in machinations between her mother’s coven and its rivals. I love this story. The two covens have been at war forever over… the Rose Festival, and whose roses win the most awards. I am impressed at how successfully French made me understand Sophie’s anger at her mother. Frankly, when Sophie’s mother attacks her magically I was appalled. That was assault, pure and simple, and being someone’s mother doesn’t give you the right to assault them. Similarly, the mother of Gabe, one of Sophie’s friends, threatened to use a magical compulsion on him if he wouldn’t voluntarily seduce Sophie and spy on her coven (despite the fact that he’s gay). Again, that’s a threat of assault, and it was easy to see why he was so furious with his mother. I was so grateful to French that she didn’t attempt to whitewash these assaults as something that’s okay because it was done by family. This story was intense and an emotional rollercoaster that truly made me feel for its characters. Rating: 5 out of 5

Candace Osmond’s Iron & Wine sends Avery Quinn off to college with her best friend Julie. She’s majoring in art, gets a great job at an art gallery… and oh yeah, makes friends with a bunch of Fae that live and hang out in the park near her home. (Even ending up with a pixie as a roommate.) Her boss at the gallery becomes like family, and Avery is nuts for the boss’s brother Jake. I have to say, I’ve complained in the past about the ‘rivalry stereotype.’ This is one of the few stories I’ve read that does a rivalry right, such that it isn’t a stereotype. Avery has a mutual hatred going on with another girl and fellow student, Max. The relationship isn’t at all one-note, however; they aren’t fighting over a man’s affections; and there are other good female/female friendships in the story. I stayed up late to finish this story, and it really sucked me in! There was also some potential danger in the way so many side characters instantly become good friends with Avery, except that Max and Jake were there as counterpoints. Also it makes sense that the Fae would be obsessed with the one human who comes and hangs out with them. Rating: 5 out of 5

K.G. Reuss’s Dead Silence: A Dementon Academy of Magic Novel (The Everlasting Chronicles Book 1) introduces us to Everly (Ever). After a near-death experience in which she’s saved by a shadowy being, she can see (and hear) dead things–and they want her dead, too. Content warning for attempted suicide and attempted rape (attempted sex with someone who’s severely inebriated). Ever goes a tad bit insane–understandably so–and comes under the care of Dr. Brighton, who knows more than he’s saying. This starts off feeling like horror, but it veers left into urban fantasy, with labeled supernaturals and an academy for them. I would have preferred if it had stayed closer to horror. Rating: 4 out of 5

Lorah Jaiyn’s The Hunt stars Bryn, a file clerk at a law firm who finds a mysterious box that only she can open. It has within it a strange crystal, and she begins to have odd dreams about a man named Surro who has been exiled to a rather empty and unappealing dimension. One day she manages to pull him out of the dream and into reality. He seems to be the perfect man until he makes friends with Kat, the paralegal who treats Bryn like dirt, and then demands Bryn give him the crystal. There’s too much explaining of Bryn’s personality at the beginning of the story. Most of that detail is extraneous–what matters isn’t what we’re told about Bryn’s personality, but rather what we see of it. The pacing and plot are kind of jumbly and abrupt, and the ending is even more sudden. But at least this story doesn’t leave off in the middle the way many of the books in this volume do. Rating: 3 out of 5

Belladonna Cunning brings us the story of Sacred Mark of Four. 25-year-old Viktora Hale is destined to lead the light council, but that day comes early when her parents are kidnapped. The parents of her succubus best friend Vivika are also kidnapped. Their Guardians Liam and Markus come to protect them and help them find their parents. We’re supposed to like Liam, but with lines like “Most days I didn’t know whether I wanted to slap the shit out of her or fuck her” it’s hard to do that. Markus and Liam are a couple of dude-bros who don’t want anyone to know they’re into “thick” girls or they’ll be laughed at. Vik of course is the stereotype of the privileged, temperamental rich girl. Apparently female-on-male sexual violence is supposed to be funny. A “horny entity” takes over Vik for a few minutes, and then it’s like everyone just forgets that ever happened. It’s inconsistent whether Liam, as Vik’s Guardian, is affected by her powers. Liam has a detailed murder-fantasy over an ex who cheated on him (in this age of incels murdering women, normalizing this sort of fantasy is at best irresponsible). Since Vik and Viv’s parents have been kidnapped, apparently that means it’s time for the girls to… get their bodyguards drunk and play pranks on them? Whuh? The entire manuscript could use another edit, and there are several malapropisms that show up. The characters escape from an authority figure who was possessed, and for several weeks there’s mysteriously no fallout from that. A vampire spouts something cryptic out of nowhere and Liam doesn’t even seem to notice. Liam goes into the stereotypical “woe is me, I have to be a brooding badass to make things right” spiral. Early on we’re shown that Liam senses his charge’s emotions (he runs to check on Vik only to find she’s just mourning her missing parents), yet when she’s kidnapped later, he doesn’t feel her panic. Also, if you’re going to introduce a mysterious-yet-familiar woman (whose face you can’t see), make sure there’s more than one character in the story that could fit. Plot twists are one thing, but characters shouldn’t pull entire new resources out of nowhere that they’ve supposedly had all along but haven’t bothered informing the audience of. (Content warning: explicit sex, sexual assault.) Rating: 1 out of 5

The Child’s Curse, by Amanda Roberts, introduces Sparrow, a girl living in Peking who steals to feed her family. When she touches an artifact, she starts having visions of the past. She’s sold to a fortune teller, who plans to make a lot of money off of her. This story is very vivid, visual, and interesting–you can really see what’s going on. The characters are interesting, particularly Sparrow. The story feels like it’s just getting started when it ends, however. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Crown’s Calling, by Silver Nord, is a tale of British royalty–and magic. King Alexander is a Singer. Queen Zara is a Whisperer. Their marriage was arranged for power and peace, and they hate each other. Amelia is the last Kingmaker, possessed of both Singer and Whisperer magic and able to partially negate each. She’s responsible for keeping the peace and seeing justice done among the magically inclined. But really, things have never been peaceful. And justice has certainly not been done. Now the Whisperers are rising up, and Amelia is caught in the middle. The worldbuilding in this story is quite original and interesting. Unfortunately, it’s little tidbits of story between crash courses in the history of the Kingmakers, and that makes the first half of the story a bit tedious. After that things get interesting, but the story leaves off in some confusion, with a rather unsatisfying semi-conclusion. Rating: 4 out of 5

Veronica Shade’s The Vampire Queen: A Young Adult Paranormal Romance opens with Hadley discovering that her best friend Iris has been kidnapped by vampires. The vampires demand that Hadley trade herself for Iris within one hour. Hadley appears to have some sort of supernatural ability–she can discover useful spells by reading tea leaves. When she rushes to find Esme, her mentor, instead she finds Finn, who’s helping Esme out. Finn and Hadley use a spell to get them to the vampires quickly, and Hadley determines to trade herself for Iris. This seems like an intriguing world–I’d love to learn more about the tea-leaf-reading and the spells. However, this feels hurried and lacks necessary details. The main vampire wants to “cure” Hadley of an aspect of her supernatural inheritance so she can’t interfere in his plans, but no one ever explains why he doesn’t just kill her. It’s never explained why, if Hadley was just going to trade herself for Iris as demanded, she had to do a shapeshifting spell with Finn first (except as a convenient way to give them the shapeshifting/mind-talking powers for later). It’s never explained how Finn knows so much about Hadley’s birth father (among other things). We’re given no idea of how Hadley manages to disappear to the vampires without her parents reporting her missing. It’s an intriguing world, but this story doesn’t stand alone well. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

If what you’re looking for is a sampler to give you a roster of potential new authors to follow, this could be a decent investment. Particularly since it has more than 20 books in it (seriously, books–NOT short stories). If you just want a slate of new books to read for variety, however, you might get a bit frustrated by the number of books that leave off in the middle of things. And it’s true that some of these books really don’t measure up to the others.

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Review: “The Vampire Queen,” Veronica Shade

Pros: Interesting worldbuilding and characters
Cons: Incomplete, and a bit matter-of-fact
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Veronica Shade’s The Vampire Queen: A Young Adult Paranormal Romance opens with Hadley discovering that her best friend Iris has been kidnapped by vampires. The vampires demand that Hadley trade herself for Iris within one hour. Hadley appears to have some sort of supernatural ability–she can discover useful spells by reading tea leaves. When she rushes to find Esme, her mentor, instead she finds Finn, who’s helping Esme out. Finn and Hadley use a spell to get them to the vampires quickly, and Hadley determines to trade herself for Iris.

The main vampire wants to “cure” Hadley of an aspect of her supernatural inheritance so she can’t interfere in his plans. No one ever explains why he doesn’t just kill her, since we find out he’s killed at least one other in furtherance of his plans. It’s also never explained why, if Hadley was just going to trade herself for Iris as demanded, she had to do a shapeshifting spell with Finn first (except as a convenient way to give them the shapeshifting/mind-talking powers for later). It’s never explained how Finn knows so much about Hadley’s birth father (among other things). Events tend to be detailed a little matter-of-factly for my taste. We’re given no idea of how Hadley manages to disappear to the vampires without her parents reporting her missing. Also, while this book is billed as a paranormal romance, the only romance is Hadley thinking Finn looks cute; there isn’t enough time nor detail for more than that.

The worldbuilding is intriguing. I’m not yet clear on what sort of supernatural abilities allow Hadley to use spells and read tea leaves, but that’s a neat hook. Hadley’s supernatural inheritance should certainly make for more interesting stories.

This story doesn’t stand alone all that well–too much information missing for that–but it did intrigue me.

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Review: “Dead Silence,” K.G. Reuss

Pros: Interesting characters
Cons: Genre-twisting
Rating: 4 out of 5

K.G. Reuss’s Dead Silence: A Dementon Academy of Magic Novel (The Everlasting Chronicles Book 1) introduces us to Everly (Ever), a high-school-aged girl who’s seeing things. When she was little and dealing with her father’s alcoholism and abuse, she used to see monsters and a strange Shadow who seemed to age as she did. Eventually things got better when her father left, but now she’s starting to see things again. When she’s hit by a car and more-or-less dies, her life is saved by the Shadow–but now she can see and hear dead things, and they aren’t friendly. When her behavior tips off her nurse mother, she ends up seeing Dr. Brighton, who seems to know more than he’s saying. The meds he puts her on help, but they aren’t enough. And when the monsters start attacking Ever, something’s going to have to break.

First of all: a content warning for attempted suicide and for attempted rape (attempting sex with someone who is seriously drunk). The beginning of the book feels like a horror novel. The creatures coming after Ever are scary and they seem to want her to join them. She’s pursued at home and in school, even though no one else can see or hear what she’s dealing with. Unfortunately, this excellent vibe is smacked down when the story turns into an urban fantasy with labeled supernaturals (Specials) and an academy they go to. It takes the delightful horror of the beginning and turns it mundane. Hopefully the horror vibe turns back up in later books, because that was the best part of this volume.

The characters are good and have depth. Ever is a bit of a bitter, sarcastic person; it’s understandable given her background. She deals with almost-death and seeing dead things very badly. There are definitely some uneasy scenes with her schoolmates that are difficult to read, in which she’s heavily embarrassed by what’s going on and how others are reacting to her. This material is written very well, and makes it easy to empathize with both Ever and her friends.

I’m not sure whether I want to read the next volume. I’m not really psyched about the idea of another magical academy book. If you are, and you also enjoy some horror, then this is probably the series for you.

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Review: “Ashes of Raging Water,” Michael J. Allen

Pros: Fascinating worldbuilding and interesting characters
Cons: Some details
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael J. Allen’s Ashes of Raging Water: An Urban Fantasy Action Adventure (Blood Phoenix Chronicles) is an enjoyable and interesting urban fantasy. Water phoenix Quayla is on probation and trying to prove herself to her boss, Vitae, the life phoenix of her Shield. She finds out about a Fae incursion in an animal shelter and decides to take it on herself. She ends up dying, but being a phoenix she’s reborn. Of course getting herself killed, and leaving behind a mess of Fae bodies and security camera footage, doesn’t help her case in Vitae’s eyes. Neither does the fact that she insisted on handling the mess herself. There’s a mystery afoot: why are Wyldfae stealing animals? In the course of trying to recover from her death, Quayla has to tell her boyfriend Dylan, who luckily already knows what she is, that she’s died–which means her physical form has changed. There’s also a poor photo of her old body on the security footage from the shelter, and a cop who’s determined to prove she’s been killing the animals. Quayla also manages to engender the animosity of both Fae courts with her lack of subtlety, her landlady ends up involved, and there’s a doctor at the morgue who’s doing experiments with troll bone marrow and a dead cat. In short order, the world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket!

One thing that continues to confuse me is the way each phoenix takes on a new human form when they are reborn. The new form is supposedly capable of being pretty much anything in the human array of possibilities. Despite that, I get the impression gender swaps aren’t that frequent (shouldn’t they be 50-50?). Supposedly there’s some magical and psychological mumbo-jumbo hand-wavy bit that means people still recognize the person once they’ve changed. But there’s at least one instance in here where someone doesn’t recognize the person, and another where it seems not-so-straightforward.

The Fae are interesting. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I will say I enjoyed some of the details of how they handle things. Particularly when the two courts get upset with each other. I enjoyed all of the characters. Vitae has some understandable reasons for his animosity toward Quayla–she replaced the old water phoenix, who experienced a True Death and whom Vitae loved. Also, Quayla is fairly rash and irresponsible. (The “no, I can handle this” got a little old as she continually insisted on not asking for backup or help.) Vitae is still pretty awful, though; he’s arrogant and judgmental, and actually thinks that Quayla’s behavior merits being destroyed. Thankfully it isn’t his decision to make–he answers to higher beings. My favorite character is Bradley, the morgue doctor who’s playing Dr. Frankenstein with Fae pieces and his extensive Dungeons & Dragons knowledge.

This book ends pretty much in the middle of things, so it’s good that the other volumes are due out shortly. If I didn’t have such an extensive TBR pile I’d be tempted to preorder them–I do want to find out what happens next. There are certainly some mysteries left to explore!

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Review: “Daughter of Dragons,” A.J. Flowers

Pros: Interesting setup
Cons: Details that don’t add up right; weird ending
Rating: 3 out of 5

A.J. Flowers’s Daughter of Dragons: An Urban Fantasy Dragon Shifter Romance (Dragon Queen) is an interesting tale, but it never quite settled right for me. Lily has been having strange blackouts accompanied by dreams and visions. In them, she meets a young man named James, who tries to kill her. While Lily’s parents are on a business trip, she holds a raucous 16th birthday party at her house, arranged by her best friend Tess. She’s sure she’s going to finally sleep with her boyfriend, Damian, but things don’t work out the way she hopes. Her parents have gone missing, James shows up in the flesh at Lily’s school, her mysterious aunt Sylvia shows up to watch over her, and she seems to be… changing. Into a dragon. Soon she’s going to have to make a choice of what side to pick, and she doesn’t even know anything about the sides!

I can’t adjust to the idea that everyone expects Lily to pick a side before she knows anything about the sides. The ostensible reason is that no one wants to tell her anything she could share with their enemies if she picks the wrong side, but seriously, shouldn’t they at least be trying to sway her toward their own side? Leaving her with no information at all is just courting disaster.

I can’t say I’m thrilled with Lily’s taste in men. Damian is disgusted by what she’s becoming. James… has his own agenda, and is part of an order that’s at war with the dragons. I still don’t understand how this “choice” of Lily’s is really supposed to work. Does every dragon get this choice? The implication seems to be yes. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the order be made up partly of dragons, since that’s one of the sides being chosen between? Instead they seem to be into killing all the dragons.

Lily seems to come up with little assumptions and bits of information out of nowhere. I kept running into little things that made, me go, huh? Where’d that come from? Then after a major turn in the story the entire tone shifted, and the pacing dropped back as though this was early in a story rather than late. The story ends with plenty left unresolved. For instance, I still don’t entirely understand what happened to Lily’s parents. I still don’t understand what happened to Damian. Nor do I get how Lily seemed to affect something that happened in the past? Sorta? Maybe? It was weird. I also don’t understand why she stopped having blackouts as soon as they were no longer important to the plot.

Anyway, some of the basic paranormal worldbuilding is interesting, and it was easy to buy into the emotions of the kids in this story. But otherwise the story was something of a mess.

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Review: “Orion’s Kiss,” Claire Luana

Pros: Interesting setup
Cons: Some details
Rating: 4 out of 5

Claire Luana’s Orion’s Kiss introduces us to Meriah Carmichael. She’s a modern-day teenager who runs track in high school, and whose mother is the school psychologist. She’s also the reincarnation of the half-nymph half-Titan Merope, who’s cursed to watch Orion kill her sisters over and over again in every lifetime. Thankfully she has a friend, Zoe, who believes her–after all, Meriah sometimes has visions of the future, which have helped her to prove that she’s something beyond the normal. This time, Meriah determines that she’s going to kill Orion before he can kill her sisters. And she’s just had a vision of the first death. When she heads off to kill him, she witnesses him getting into a car wreck and ends up taking him prisoner instead. While Mer and Zoe try to figure out what to do with Orion, who might or might not even have any idea of who he is, they have to dodge the police (who are looking into the car accident) and Mer’s parents.

It’s painfully obvious that Mer won’t be able to bring herself to kill Orion the moment she takes him prisoner (and, well, because of the title of the book–there would be no kiss involving Orion if he died right away, after all). Which means, of course, that he isn’t the bad guy she believes him to be. The question of whether or not she’ll kill him, given that the answer is obvious to the reader, is stretched out for a ridiculous amount of time. Particularly since Mer and Zoe have to dodge their parents, Ryan (Orion) will obviously be missed, and since Mer called 911 when she came across the accident–from her phone, of course–the police are looking for her. It just felt… staged.

I give the author props for working Mer’s background on who and what she really is into her narrative interleaved with her conversation with her mother–it nicely kept it from feeling like a static infodump.

I had a hard time believing Mer would keep some of her visions from Ryan given that he was in them–after all, she’s trying to change the outcome of her visions. Wouldn’t telling him about them make it more likely that he’d be able to avoid them? If it’s possible, mind you, but still.

The relationship between Orion and Mer (presaged by that title, again) is warm and natural-seeming. I had no trouble believing in it as things progressed.

This tale was fun and interesting, and I enjoyed reading it.

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Cookbook Review: “Ruffage,” Abra Berens

Pros: Some decent basic instructions
Cons: Very uneven and unbalanced recipes
Rating: 2 out of 5

I haven’t had much room or energy to cook since moving a couple of years ago, so I haven’t been buying many cookbooks. Part of the reason I gave in and bought Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, by Abra Berens, is that I’m trying to eat more vegetables right now. The other reason is that it’s from Chronicle Books, and I’ve had great success with their cookbooks in the past. Which is why it surprised me so much that I didn’t enjoy the things that I made from this cookbook.

There’s a section called Strong Pantry that includes notes on a number of things such as oils, acids, seasonings, herbs, grains, beans, pasta, dairy, nuts, and condiments. There are some small “recipes” included here such as basic instructions for cooking beans, wild rice, risotto, some dressings, and crispy chickpeas. I was making a recipe for radishes with chickpeas, cumin, and lime (from later in the cookbook), and I will say that the crispy chickpeas are the one recipe in here that tasted delicious, except that the recipe would have worked just as well with about half the amount of oil (I used 3/4 and still had a fair amount of it left over).

The book is then divided by vegetable in alphabetical order: asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, green beans, greens, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, ramps, squash (summer and winter), sunchokes, tomatoes, turnips, and rutabaga. Each section has just a couple of recipes, but those recipes typically have variations. Usually those variations just list a new set of ingredients and expect you to follow the original recipe but with the change of ingredients. In most cases this works okay, but sometimes it leaves things unsaid. For example, there’s a recipe of shaved summer squash with parmesan, “lots and lots of herbs”, and olive oil, that has a variation of “w/massaged kale, cherry tomatoes + walnuts”. That’s all well and good, except that there’s nothing explaining what they mean by “massaged” kale. Since this is a cookbook imparting basic cooking knowledge, everything like this should be explained. Also, I made this variation, and it wasn’t very good. The sole dressing is olive oil with salt and pepper, so you’re essentially having plain veggies with olive oil, which is not my idea of a good recipe. Maybe it would be worth mentioning in the pantry section on oils as a quick-and-dirty technique, but I expected more from the flavors of that recipe.

Too many of these recipes rely on huge amounts of herbs for their flavor, and it can be overwhelming. The original summer squash recipe is 2 summer squash to 1 cup of herbs. The “w/buttermilk, tomato + herb salad” variation of the cucumber with cumin yogurt and parsley recipe was overwhelmed by herb flavor–yet without that, it would just taste like buttermilk, because it’s barely more than cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and buttermilk. Also the cucumbers are supposed to be unpeeled and blistered, and I found them too bitter. I hate to throw out food, but I just couldn’t finish eating that salad.

There’s a grilled corn on the cob recipe with parmesan butter. You’re supposed to heat oil with chili flakes and steep it in oil for 10 minutes, then blend with softened butter, parmesan, and parsley, then spoon it onto plastic wrap to roll it up like a log. The problem with this is that after 10 minutes, the oil is still hot enough to just melt the butter outright, which means you won’t be rolling it up into a log. Also, the amount of parmesan was too small–it made the flavor too subtle.

Now let’s go back to the radishes with chickpeas, cumin, and lime. I was looking forward to this–I love all of the components of this dish, after all. However, they don’t work well together. Lime juice (and zest) and cumin are basically the dressing. The result was very bitter, and only the presence of the chickpeas made it edible.

Even recipes that had flavor combinations I usually loved came out unbalanced and tasting “too much”–whether it be too much of herbs, too much of oil, too much of bitterness, or something else. I’m shocked to find a Chronicle cookbook that I like so little, but there it is.

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Review: “The Shadowed Sun,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: Such delightful characters and plot!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s The Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood) is the second book in The Dreamblood Duology. And frankly, I can’t stop giving 5-star ratings to all of these Jemisin books! This volume takes place ten years after the events of The Killing Moon. The Kisuati rule Gujaareh in an uneasy peace. Prince Wanahomen has been living among the desert tribes of the Banbarra, attempting to raise an army. He may finally be ready–a number of Gujaareen nobles and merchants have pledged soldiers to his cause and the tribes of the Banbarra will soon cast votes to see if they will follow him to take back Gujaareh. Even the Hetawa is willing to back war–they’ve sent their first female Sharer-Apprentice, Hanani, along with her mentor Mni-inh, to aid Wanahomen by healing him and his troops as needed. Hanani is our protagonist, and she has much to learn of Banbarra social customs as she comes to live among them. Among the Hetawa she has had to live largely as a man since the Hetawa has never had a female Sharer before, and now she has to learn to be a woman. But where the men of the Hetawa fear and resent her presence–with a few exceptions–some of the women of the Banbarra take her under their wing and help her to finally come into her own. Meanwhile, there’s a horrible nightmare traveling through the dreamers of Gujaareh–one that is contagious, and can literally kill! When it contaminates the majority of the Sharers, the Hetawa falls into disarray.

The society-building is exceptional. For instance, it isn’t just a case of one society empowering women while the other doesn’t–it’s more nuanced than that. It’s only because of the Kisuati that the Hetawa has finally inducted a woman, but on the other hand, there are ways in which the Gujaareen see women as higher beings as well. And the Banbarra have their own mixed treatment of women. It’s much more interesting than stories in which women are treated monolithically by each society. The same is also true of slaves and servants in this society. The Kisuati and the Banbarra keep slaves, while the Gujaareen keep a servant caste. Again, it isn’t straightforward who has it best or worst.

I do have to include a content warning for attempted rape, rape, and incest. There are some dark themes in this book, particularly regarding who has power over whom and how they wield it. It’s handled well, however, and is never made to be titillating or prurient.

I love the characters in this book, and the relationships between them. Hanani is a very involving protagonist, and I got terribly wrapped up in her situation. The story was intense, and I loved being carried along for the ride. The characters have a lot of depth to them, and this makes for interesting evolving relationships. Hanani and Wanahomen, as well as Hanani and Mni-inh, have really interesting interactions. We do get to see Gatherer Nijiri again, and it’s interesting to see him through Hanani’s eyes.

Obviously I’ll try not to spoil anything, but I will say that I was very pleased with how things worked out. Hanani is allowed to be a strong character with plenty of agency and depth to her. She doesn’t have an easy time of figuring things out for herself, but that’s okay. That’s part of what makes her so interesting.

He had grown up watching Gujaareen noblemen offer ten layers of insult with a shift in tone and an out-of-place bow. Banbarra were so direct that he found them refreshing, even when they meant to be rude.

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Review: “The Killing Moon,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: What a marvel of worldbuilding!
Cons: Mildly confusing at first
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is the first book in The Dreamblood Duology. Ehiru is a priest of Hananja, a Gatherer, who collects the tithe of Dreamblood and thus ushers the tithe-bearers into the afterlife, giving them peace. In his most recent Gathering, he accidentally mishandled a soul–and in the process, was told that he was being used somehow. When he and his apprentice, Nijiri, are sent to Gather the soul of a visitor from another nation, they find more evidence that someone is using the sacred charge of the Gatherers to political ends. They’re supposed to Gather from those who are dying and want peace, or from those whose souls are corrupt. But Sunandi, whom they’ve been sent to Gather, may not be corrupt as they’ve been told. The Prince of Gujaareh is up to something, and some of the Hetawa, those who serve Hananja, work with him for their own reasons. A Reaper–a Gatherer gone bad–is loose in the city, ripping souls from their bodies and devouring them whole. If Ehiru and Nijiri can’t puzzle out what’s going on, thousands upon thousands of people could die.

The worldbuilding comes at you fast and furious, and it confused me a little at first. Still, that doesn’t last long, so it’s a minor niggle at most. More important is the fact that the worldbuilding is highly original and creative. The religion of Hananja is complex, but we’re never subjected to monologues or info-dumps about all the details. Instead, the relevant bits of information are worked skillfully into the story. One of my favorite details is that plenty of people welcome the Gathering and the peace it brings. Not everyone is desperate to live just a moment or two longer. And yet, when we encounter people from Kisua, another land, they’re horrified by the idea of the Gathering. There’s a variety of reactions to the whole idea, and it’s a complex concept.

The characters are wonderful. Ehiru is a true believer in Hananja and his duties as a Gatherer, and he’s doing his best to impart these values to Nijiri. There are only two other Gatherers, both of whom–even though we only see them a scant amount–are very interesting (I’d like to see more of them). The characters are complex and layered, with their relationships changing and evolving as the story progresses. I definitely got attached to them, and shed a few tears toward the end of the book.

The plotting and pacing are delightful, although I can’t get into much discussion about them without spoiling details. I love the twists and turns the plot takes, and the tension ratchets up wonderfully as the book progresses.

I can’t wait to read the second (and final) book!

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Review: “Beyond the Night,” Colleen Gleason

Pros: Nifty worldbuilding and characters
Cons: One annoying “misunderstanding”
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book provided courtesy of the author.

In Colleen Gleason’s Beyond the Night (The Heroes of New Vegas) (Volume 1), Elliott and his friends were hiking in a cave system when an earthquake hit. They all fell unconscious, and when they woke up and emerged, it was 50 years later and the apocalypse had come and gone. There are very few people left alive, almost all of whom are younger than the end of the world, so they haven’t yet found anyone to tell them what happened. They know there are gangas, zombie-like flesh-eaters, that roam at night. When our story starts, the group does their best to rescue a bunch of kids who got stuck out at night and ambushed by gangas. In return, the kids take our heroes to the closest thing there is to a city–Envy. Another woman, Jade, had helped during the ambush as well, and since she ducked off in the early morning, Elliott hopes he’ll see her there. When they reach the city, which exists in the remnants of Las Vegas, they’re welcomed as heroes. Then they meet a man, Lou, who was alive when the apocalypse happened. He thinks he knows who caused it to happen–a mysterious group of immortal people called Strangers. Most people don’t believe the Strangers are up to anything bad, so he and Jade and a couple of other people run an underground network collecting as much information as possible.

It’s an interesting setup. There truly are very few people left–massive earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, etc. wracked the entire world at once. We’re seeing the world 50 years later, so we skip the part that most apocalyptics already cover. The guys who’ve stepped through time by some means have been changed in other ways as well. Quent can read memories off of objects. Elliott, who was a doctor, can heal people–although he absorbs their injury, and can pass it off to another. This gets pretty fascinating and adds some definite tension to the plot, as an injury he’s absorbed gets worse until he can pass it off. And he can pass it off accidentally as well as purposefully. The men’s hair and nails have also largely stopped growing, and they seem preternaturally strong and swift. They’re very well-suited to their new surrounds. The story also doesn’t skip the emotional repercussions of suddenly discovering that everyone you loved and everything you expected from your life is suddenly gone.

Jade has a background of having been caught by the Strangers and kept by a particularly sadistic one. She’s been raped and beaten. She gets sexually assaulted in this book, and we go through a scene of seeing her brutally beaten. It’s not out-of-place in a post-apocalyptic, but it’s a little hard to read.

I didn’t entirely like the “misunderstanding” that kept Jade and Elliott apart through much of the story. I’m not big on misunderstandings in romance novels anyway, because they tend to be fairly annoying, and should be easily cleared up. Certainly it should have been obvious to Jade much earlier than it was that Elliott needed reassurance that she wasn’t “with” Luke. Elliott also leaped ridiculously quickly to a conclusion that she’s basically a slut:

Women [who looked like Jade] attracted [men] in droves. And they couldn’t settle on just one.

The implication is that pretty women are always going to be promiscuous, which is an assumption that doesn’t do much for my opinion of Elliott. He cuts her some slack by presuming she needs to feel in control of her relationships due to having been kidnapped and raped, and cuts himself some slack by stating that the reason he cares about this is because he’s strictly monogamous, but the starting assumptions are still unwelcome.

The characters and plot of this series are interesting so far, and the sex scenes are nice. But I hope there are fewer misunderstandings to come.

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