Review: “Lucky Revenge,” Joshua James

Pros: Plenty of machinations; great action
Cons: A bit confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Joshua James’s Lucky Revenge: Lucky’s Marines | Book Six, the Cardinal Order has joined forces with the alien Dalmuk to attack the home world of the Empire. The Emperor is coming back with a fleet aided by the alien Da’hune to try to offset this. It seems like it’s going to be a fairly straightforward clash–but nothing involving Emperor April is ever straightforward. She has plans within plans, and she needs Lucky and his marines to go through an open “corridor” within space and blow it up from the other side.

It took me a little bit to work out again what all the various alliances were, so try to read this book while the previous one is still fresh in your mind.

I found some of April’s machinations a little opaque and overly complex. She tends to the extreme of paranoia and secret-keeping. It makes her character interesting, especially when paired with her particularly entertaining brand of crazy, but she does tend to over-complicate things. Maybe I’m just a little sleepy today, but I never did entirely figure out why she did certain things in a certain way and added particular layers to her plan.

The narrative tone is snarky, sarcastic, zingy, and clever. I really enjoy the feel it lends to the book.

“This would be hilarious if someone wasn’t trying to kill us,” Rocky offered. “Oh, wait, it’s still hilarious.”

The action quotient, as always, is high and creative. Lucky and his marines, while trying to deploy, get their drop ship blown up and end up making their way to a space station in a highly dangerous, unusual, and eventually hilarious manner. A chase scene that plays out on slow-moving cargo-loader drone platforms–something that sounds ridiculous–is explosive and exciting. As usual the Hate puts in an appearance and Lucky gets the ever-loving crap beat out of him. Things get seriously bloody, folks! Thanks to on-board AIs, nanobots, med bots, regeneration patches, and so on, the marines can take an awful lot of damage and keep on ticking.

Make sure to read past the author’s note at the end–the author included a copy of “Lucky Shot” in the kindle ebook version I read, which is Lucky’s origin story. This volume is a solid entry into the series, and I look forward to the next release!

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Review: “Connections in Death,” J.D. Robb

Pros: Vintage Robb style; wonderfully quotable text
Rating: 5 out of 5

My assessments of the “in Death” books by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) tend to range from 3 out of 5 to 5 out of 5; they vary a bit in quality. Robb also has a very distinct style that I love, and some books embody that more than others. In Connections in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 48), Robb is at her trademark best! New York homicide detective Eve Dallas is having a bit of a break for now. She’s helping Nadine to celebrate her Oscar win with a huge party at which you’ll see all of the cast regulars. She’s taking a rare day off. Roarke is taking time to hire a new head therapist for the center he’s opening, Dr. Rochelle Pickering. All seems unusually well, until Rochelle’s brother Lyle is found dead of an apparently drug overdose in the apartment they share. Ro insists he wouldn’t have started using again, and Eve quickly agrees that the death was staged. It seems like a pretty straightforward job of figuring out who had a grudge against the ex-gang member, until details stop adding up. Soon a gang war threatens the streets of New York, and every time Eve tracks down a new lead, it turns up dead.

The opening party sparkles! It name-checks pretty much every series regular, so this is definitely not a good entry book for a new reader to the series. The party is a great opportunity to showcase the glitz-and-glamour side of the series, which contrasts so artfully with the grit-and-grime of the crime side. Eve’s subsequent day off is steeped in her trademark blunt, even crass, style, which makes a nice palate cleanser before the meat of the story. When Ro gets her dream job offer from Roarke we get to see the glee of someone’s dream coming true, which adds another facet to the escapist nature of the book.

At Robb’s best, she’s incredibly quotable. Back when I was married I used to drive my husband a little nuts reading bits and pieces of her books out loud to him. This volume absolutely hits that sweet spot. I ended up sharing a couple of the better quotes with friends via facebook while reading because they were too fun not to share!

Upscale here meant the obscenities tagged on the walls of buildings were grammatically correct.

The dialogue is delightfully snappy, particularly the banter between Eve and Roarke, Eve and Peabody, and so on. We get a few of Eve’s trademark bungled aphorisms to delightful end. Themes and call-backs wend their way through the narrative and dialogue like threads coming together to form a tapestry.

The mystery and web of crimes unfolds delightfully. The faked OD seems almost straightforward in the ease with which Eve figures out that it really was a homicide, but the twists pile up from there. The head of the old gang Lyle belonged to didn’t really have a gripe with him despite the fact that he left the gang after getting out of prison. He also wouldn’t have handled it in that manner if he had. He does, however, have a couple of suspicious business interests outside of the gang with an unlikely set of partners. Someone involved in Lyle’s death also shows up dead shortly thereafter, killed in an absolutely brutal fashion (this series does get dark, folks) and left in a place that seems calculated to kick off violence between two rival gangs. The buildup of all of these details that don’t jibe is just fantastic.

Galahad the cat seems particularly full of personality this time, and after reading this book I seriously want a pizza. The characters have their usual depth, the interplay between them is fantastic, 2061 New York is vivid and real, and there’s some great action toward the climax. This is a fantastic entry into the series!

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Review: “Template,” Matthew Hughes

Pros: The last quarter of the book
Cons: Dry, tedious; wooden main character; monolithic societies…
Rating: 3 out of 5

Matthew Hughes’s Template: A Novel of the Archonate introduces us to Conn Labro, a famed duelist who’s indentured to a gaming emporium. He was sold to them when he was too young to remember, and he has little curiosity about where he came from. One day an old client who would play a particular game with him once a week fails to show up, and Conn finds out that he was killed. Shortly thereafter, the owner of the gaming emporium and his heir both die in an attack. A man buys Conn’s contract, only for Conn to find out that his dead client left him with enough money to buy out his contract and be wealthy afterward. Conn leaves the planet with another friend of his client, Jenore Mordene, and the two of them look for answers about a bearer deed his client left behind, as well as Conn’s mysterious origins.

Genre clarification: this is philosophical SF. Seriously, in-depth, philosophical SF, largely about the economic basis of various societies. Here’s a good example of the kind of narrative you can expect:

Transactualism was a utilitarian system that held that existence conducted under rules of zero-sum accounting offered a high degree of orderliness, a characteristic that the system’s adherents prized above all. They rejected abstract concepts in favor of quantifiable realities….

In a general sense I don’t mind philosophical SF, but I don’t like the way in which this book carried it out. Conn isn’t just low-emotion; he’s wooden. Jenore is clearly there to help him become a Real Boy. Each world or region the characters encounter has a monolithic economic system based in a single societal value (one character opines that each is governed by one of the seven deadly sins). Each person they encounter, no matter how highly (or not) educated, is capable of debating their society’s culture and economy. (This also makes many of the characters sound the same.) Everyone speaks in high-falutin’ language, and the author enjoys using hundred-dollar words. It’s very self-consciously pretentious. Also, despite the fact that Conn is a famed duelist and gamer, we only see him engage in one card game and one duel (which comes at the end). For such a physical character he almost never gets to engage physically.

That last quarter of the book helped to redeem it. By that time the staccato rhythm of the character interactions had smoothed out. The pretentious language had eased off a bit. Some things became physical, the characters discussed things other than economic philosophy, Conn started developing emotions, and we got to find out about Conn’s origins. Obviously I won’t give those away; I’ll just say the whole thing was fascinating and made up for much of the preceding chapters of the book.

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Review: “vN: The First Machine Dynasty,” Madeline Ashby

Pros: Fascinating look at sentient artificial humanoids
Cons: Gets a bit confusing toward the end
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty, self-replicating “von Neumann humanoids” have been created. Ostensibly they were created to serve those humans who would be left behind when the Rapture came, but their creators also had some darker intentions. Jack, a human, is “married” to Charlotte, a vN. Charlotte has iterated–created another of herself–whom they consider their daughter, Amy. They “feed” her very little so she will grow up as slowly as a human, because they want her to be able to integrate into human society. When Amy’s grandmother, Portia, shows up and Charlotte tries to defend Amy, Amy instinctively bites–and devours–Portia. Each vN has a failsafe that makes them break down if they see damage done to a human, the best way their creators came up with to keep them from ever hurting humans. But when Amy saves her mother, she also witnesses a death without being affected by it. She’s taken into custody, but escapes with the help of Javier, another vN. Thence follows a lot of running, and a lot of soul-searching.

First, I’m giving you a trigger warning for child death and for the mention of pedophilia. Not everyone will be comfortable with some of the turns this story takes.

Amy apparently inherited her lack of a failsafe from her mother and grandmother, and the details surrounding how this happened are actually quite fascinating. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who want to put a stop to the existence of a vN with no failsafe, and there are even worse people who have a purpose for such a being. The failsafe also tends to make vN want to do whatever the humans around them want them to do, which can lead to some very dangerous situations for vN. It also raises some beautiful issues of emotion and free will.

Because his designers and engineers and techs had built in autonomy but not freedom, and they had built in free will but not choice….

The characters in here are wonderful. The main characters are vN, and Ashby does a great job of making them not-quite-human. The worldbuilding is also fantastic; the whole history of vN is intriguing. We get to see plenty of Javier and Amy on the run, and how they try to remain free with the help of another vN called Rory. Javier was ready to iterate when Amy met up with him, so they also have “Junior” with them. This translates into a great opportunity to see the differences in how Amy was raised and how other vNs might be raised. The entire setting is lively and well-thought-out.

Toward the end there’s one section that gets really confusing at first, but it does eventually untangle and explain itself. It just gave me a bit of a headache for a short time.

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Review: “Threat of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Tense battles and creative planning
Cons: Books are formulaic; minor issues
Rating: 4 out of 5

In book one of Linsey Hall’s “The Amazon” (book 26 of her “Dragon’s Gift” universe) Rowan had to keep her demon-touched power secret, start integrating her Dragon God magic, make nice with her new (and hot) teacher Maximus, and stop a couple of monstrous demon-birds from feeding on humans. In book two, Maximus came to the Protectorate for their help: the evil witches were trying to steal the magical artifact that was a prize in a magical race. Maximus needed Rowan to be his partner in the race so they could get the prize instead. In book three, Rowan had to track down the Amazons, save them and Atlas, and figure out what the Stryx are up to next. Now, in Threat of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Amazon Book 4), Rowan is splitting her time between training with the Amazons and seeking out seers who might be able to find the Stryx and the three freed Titans. One seer indicates that the goddess Hecate might know where the Stryx are, and Rowan and Maximus are off to the underworld.

This is the second time, I think, that the sisters have had to break into an underworld. So, it’s great that they think to talk to Nix and all, but what about Roarke? The man is the freaking Warden of the Underworlds, and no one thinks to go to him for advice or help when going to an underworld! That’s kind of a glaring plot hole, there. (The poor guy gets no love.)

As in Ana and Bree’s plot arcs, Rowan is learning more of how to use her magics. Artemis’s power has more facets than originally anticipated, and another new power makes an appearance. It’s nicely handled. There are so many unusual abilities at play now that Hall can make her climactic scenes, if anything, even more tense and creative. Mordaca and Aerdeca make a brief appearance, and it goes so entirely unexplained that I can only assume it has something to do with other books Hall might put out, centered around those two sisters. Since Hall seems to like creating her main characters in threes, it makes me wonder if we’ll find out that Mordaca and Aerdeca have a third sister, and then see another 15 books come out centered on them.

The task-and-resolution formula that Hall follows almost religiously is a little shaken up this time, which is nice. These are some excellent comfort-read books (the characters never get too badly hurt; the romances always go well; the reader always knows roughly what to expect), but the same things that make them comfortable also make them less exciting and tense than they could be. Whether that’s a good trade-off depends on what sort of reading you’re in the mood for.

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Review: “Haunted Blade,” J.C. Daniels

Pros: Want more!
Cons: Characters overreact too much
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Haunted Blade (Colbana Files Book 6) by J.C. Daniels (Shiloh Walker), Doyle is now acting as an intern for Kit Colbana. A powerful and mysterious non-human (NH) named Malcolm has taken an interest in Kit, and this almost certainly isn’t a good thing. Kit’s been having nightmares of her abusive grandmother, and there’s something odd about the dreams. Meanwhile, there’s about to be a massive influx of feral vampires–a potentially deadly threat to all of Orlando. Something wants Kit and her friends to suffer.

Kit’s grandmother Fanis seems to know a lot of major bad guys in the world. It certainly gives a good idea of how powerful she is and how much influence the Amazons have. On the other hand, it makes it seem odd that she’s putting this much effort and political capital into getting her hands on Kit. I’m loath to allow “because she’s bat-shit crazy” to be a hand-waving cure-all for such things, so I hope there will turn out to be more behind this. Certainly Kit is learning to use some of her abilities in new and interesting ways, so maybe it will have something to do with that.

Trigger warning for rape. Some of Kitasa’s past traumas come back to haunt her, so there are some tough scenes to read. One thing Daniels writes very well is traumatized people. Also, explicit (consensual) sex.

All of the characters are so damn prickly that sometimes I can’t even figure out what they’re overreacting to. I understand the notion of paranormal worlds in which various supernaturals tend to have heightened reactions, like shapeshifters and vampires, but there are times when it gets laid on a little thick. Overall, though, there are some fantastic characters in these books. We get to find out a little bit more about Chang, Damon’s right-hand man, in this volume, which is nice. It’s also a relief, after some other books I’ve been reading, to have some characters who aren’t white and some female/female relationships that aren’t rivalries.

There are enough surprises in this one that I don’t want to get too much into later events in the book. I’ll just say that the events were quite tense, kept me firmly involved, and left me wanting more! I hope Daniels will put out a new book in this series soon!

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Review: “Killing Spree,” Various Authors

Pros: A great way to find some new authors
Cons: Wildly varying quality
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

After trying to read a nice bloody serial killer book only to have it turn out to be horrible, I turned to Killing Spree: 10 Brutal Ebooks In One Bloody Bundle. It’s an ebook bundle (from novella- to novel-length), and I’m familiar with some of the authors already, such as Robert Jeschonek and Dean Wesley Smith. Some stories are definitely better than others. Obviously, this being a serial killer collection, there are some gruesome deaths, some sex, and a bit of torture. Although you can pick up all ten of these in the one Killing Spree volume, I’ve included links to individual volumes as well (except for the one story not available on Amazon). My ratings from these stories range all the way from 2 to 5, so you can get a good idea of the range of quality.

Robert Jeschonek’s The Greatest Serial Killer in the Universe: A Scifi Story: Luther used to be a renowned serial killer–and since the arthritis took over, he’s become a renowned serial killer personal trainer. His current gig, however, is unusually difficult: he’s being paid by a singularly non-aggressive alien race to teach them the ‘killer instinct’ so they can save their world.

Luther is a fun character, and his depiction of serial killers as a kind of celebrity is entertaining. I also love the portrayal of the Ectozoids as they absorb his killer instinct–and suddenly leave him wondering why he’s felt so proud of committing such horrible acts. The Ectos are running out of time to save their world as they go nuts killing each other–will he come out of this safe and sound? Entertaining, enjoyable, and I’d give it a 4 out of 5.

Dean Wesley Smith’s Calling Dead: A Cold Poker Gang Mystery: Several retired detectives and a handful of their friends work with the permission of the police chief to solve cold cases. This being a Dean Wesley Smith work, they also play a lot of poker. Bayard Lott, Andor Williams, and Julia Rogers dive into a cold case that Lott and Williams first tackled 15 years earlier. The detectives had found 11 mummified bodies of women in a cave, all with black hair cut identically, wearing identical school uniforms, with identical portions of their anatomy removed. They never found any clues as to who might have done it. Now with the substantial resources of a “deep network of computer experts” at their beck and call, they discover that there may be a lot more bodies out there.

I love this book. It’s a nice, taut, complicated mystery. Only once did I feel someone leaped a little fortuitously to a conclusion, but it only would have required an additional step to make it perfect, so it isn’t a big deal. Some tough detective work, lucky breaks, and plenty of digging were required for this one. The complexity surprised me a bit; this definitely isn’t your run-of-the-mill serial killer tale. I really enjoyed this volume, and look forward to reading more of the Cold Poker Gang’s mysteries. My rating is a 5 out of 5.

Russ Crossley’s The Last Serial Killer: It’s the 2050s, and there’s only one serial killer left on earth: Mike Sikes. He’s on death row, but he’s allowed to call in to Todd Road’s conservative talk show. He starts saying that aliens are going to come spring him from jail due to believing he’s innocent, and when an actual alien space ship is seen decelerating toward Earth, people start believing him.

This story is full of little holes, inconsistencies, and typos. The ultimate plot is interesting, but the experience of reading the book isn’t that great. Road is actually a pretty good character though–he starts out pretty odious (but not too much so), then gradually becomes more human as the tale goes on. I’ll rate this one a 2.5 out of 5.

Mary C. Blowers’s Medieval Blood: Historical Fiction on the Life of Countess Bathory, Real-Life Serial Killer: This is a tale of the Countess Erzsebet Bathory, who used the blood of her servant girls as a beauty treatment during the 1500s. The pacing is sometimes a bit too straightforward when tense things should be happening. The text definitely needs another round of editing, especially to make sure there are quotation marks in appropriate places. The narrative has a spot that suddenly changes to address the reader as “you” and “we”. The writing quality is kind of raw, and definitely needs polish. Also, the story gets wrapped very suddenly and easily, and in a one-note manner. My rating: 2 out of 5.

Laura Ware’s Dead Hypocrites: “Truthbringer” is a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner of hypocritical Christians. His letters to the press claim that he wants to prove to everyone that Christianity is nothing but lies and fables. He starts out by killing a pair of adulterers, then moves on to others. Christian detective David Hill and his non-religious partner Calvin Anderson get assigned to the case. Hill would rather be off the case–he knows the people being targeted and fears he may know the killer–but his boss insists.

The characters have some complexity to them, the pacing is good, and the plot is complex enough to be interesting without getting out of hand. The religious soul-searching, constant praying, and quoting of scriptures is a bit heavy-handed, but at least it’s well-written in a general sense. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. My rating: 4 out of 5.

Dave Franklin’s The Goodreads Killer: The Trilogy: Thomas is a self-published author who can’t stop obsessing over his bad reviews–one in particular he found on Goodreads. When he freaks out, a homeless-looking man named Ira Nitor gives him a bit of a beating, calls him a ‘quitter’, and gives him a business card for one Mr. Pasco. Pasco informs him that it’s time to kill Bryan Acari, the author of the worst review. With the help of Pasco’s secretary Clarissa, with whom Thomas falls in love, Thomas uses information fed to him by Pasco to torture, humiliate, and kill Ascari. But he decides he doesn’t want to stop there!

The idea of an author going full serial-killer on negative reviewers is certainly chilling (gulp). The problem I had with this volume, however, is that it’s really hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. And while some readers love that kind of thing, I only occasionally find that it works for me. Franklin directly name-checks Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” which is kind of apt, and should also give you some idea of the fact that this is full of sex and violence. There’s also some good stuff getting into the creative act, how we treat it, and how reviewers fit into it. The reviewers are uniformly ugly characters, but on the other hand the main character is deliberately going after those reviewers who are vicious and enjoy hurting authors, so I suppose it isn’t too surprising. My rating: 3 out of 5. (Please don’t anyone come kill me over that.)

Rebecca M. Senese’s Mind Hunt: A Science Fiction/Mystery Novel: Max Grainger, of the Crime Investigation Unit, is investigating a series of gruesome murders. Each time, the killer slaughters the six marriage partners, then all but one child, from a family grouping. She then kidnaps the final child, dumping the body roughly a week later. We get to see the investigation from the point of view of Max. We see part of the story through the eyes of Dr. Helen Nusome, the killer. Then finally we get a peek into the life of one Janine Sanders, a presidential aide who is having nightmares of the killings. The setting takes place after a bunch of bio-plagues caused widespread sterility and genetic damage, resulting in conception occurring only by cloning, and only by the permission of a governmental body. Dr. Nusome is using the kidnapped children for genetic material to sell black market embryos, but she’s also killing and mutilating because she really likes doing so.

Things seem a bit disjointed for a while, as there’s no obvious reason despite the futuristic setting for how Janine could possibly dream someone else’s actions. There’s no evidence of any psychic abilities in the story, and she doesn’t cross the investigators’ paths until late in the tale. For the most part the characters have good complexity to them, and there’s plenty of tension to the events. Grainger is desperate to catch the killers and rescue the latest kidnapped boy. This book desperately needed an extra round of editing, however. There are a lot of mis-used homonyms. Also, the use of ‘scrap’ instead of ‘scrape’ and ‘scrapping’ instead of ‘scraping’ would have been a lot less like nails scraping on a chalkboard if it wasn’t one of the author’s favorite words. My rating: 4 out of 5.

P.A. Wilson’s Closing The Circle: A San Francisco Serial Killer Novel: Special Agent Sam Barton, FBI, is in San Francisco to hunt down a serial killer who’s inscribing ritualistic symbols into his victims. Barton figures out the victims connect back to one Felicity Armstrong, business owner and Wiccan. The killer seems to be using some sort of perverted mishmash of Christian and Wiccan beliefs in his rituals. He’s left notes at Felicity’s home and office, indicating that each victim was being punished for some ‘crime’ against her. Sam and Felicity have to catch him before his obsession inevitably ends at her feet.

There are some holes in this story. If the killer is leaving notes at Felicity’s home and office, particularly since he goes to her office on more than one occasion, then why aren’t those locations under 24-hour surveillance? Why aren’t the police asking how this guy keeps getting into her office and home without obvious signs of break-in? For that matter, how does he know the code to her home alarm? How does he have a copy of her house key? Also, it would nice if the author knew how to spell athame, since we’re supposed to buy into Felicity’s identity as a Wiccan. The characters are okay, although not entirely deep. The story is straightforward, and definitely leaves too many questions unanswered. I enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t fantastic. My rating: 3 out of 5.

Jeffrey J. Mariotte’s Empty Rooms (The Krebbs and Robey Casefiles Book 1): Detroit detective Frank Robey (ex-FBI) and security guard Richie Krebbs (ex-cop) stumble across a new lead in the case of a girl who went missing thirteen years earlier. Richie impresses Frank enough that the two partner up to work on the cold case, even though it costs Richie his job. The two become convinced that the killer was actually the girl’s father, and that the man is still out there, preying on other little girls. Thus starts a race to track him down and stop him.

Richie is not my favorite main character. For instance, he sleeps with a woman who is not his wife, then justifies it to himself as not being a threat to his marriage because he won’t see her again. There are a lot of slow bits to this tale, and various side-journeys, and at times I found myself starting to skim portions of it. I think if it had been a bit tighter it would have been a more interesting read. My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Robert Jeschonek’s Serial Killer vs. E-Merica: A Scifi Story: This short story introduces us to the AI avatars of the 100 states of America, in the year 2300. Missouri has just been found dead, and it’s up to Nevada to figure out what’s going on as additional bodies start dropping. This is a short, confusing-yet-interesting story, and I just wish there’d been a bit more to it. There was little time to build up characters or tension, which it could have used more of. My rating: 3 out of 5.

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Review: “Earthshaker,” Robert Jeschonek

Pros: Fantastic story and characters
Cons: Minor details
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

After reading Day 9, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read Robert Jeschonek’s Earthshaker: Gaia Charmer, World Warrior Book 1. I’m so glad that I did! Gaia Charmer is a travel agent and PI who has some sort of affinity with and power over the earth. She lives in a world of nymphs and gods/goddesses–a world of which humanity is largely unaware. She has a partner/helper named Duke who also has some sort of mysterious affinity with the earth, and a friendly police officer, Sheriff Briar, who appreciates her help catching serial killers and the like. Gaia’s best friend, Aggie, gets killed, and Laurel, the avatar of the Alleghany Mountains, asks for help finding the people who are poisoning her; Gaia has reason to believe the two cases are connected. She sets out with her friends in tow to find out what’s going on and get justice for her friend.

This is a really neat cross between a superhero book and an urban fantasy. In the opening battle that shows us what Gaia’s capable of, her powers are presented in a very cinematic and superhero-ish manner. All of the major battles have that superhero vibe to them, and when combined with the urban fantasy milieu rather than a world in which supers are a “thing” it creates a nifty feel. I’m utterly tickled by it.

There was one paragraph of mixed metaphors that made my eyes cross (from seawater to blood in a centrifuge to a prospector’s sluice in one quick go). There’s way too much use of italics to emphasize words–it would be like emailing with someone who kept throwing in all-caps words every sentence or three. On the other hand, I suppose it does evoke comic book style to a certain extent. Gaia is a bit frustratingly thick on a couple of occasions. And the ‘secret’ of her past (she doesn’t remember anything before about five years ago) is about as obvious as a whack on the head. But the rest of the book is so good that these are really just bumps in the road.

The characters are a lot of fun. I love it when Laurel–a mountain range made flesh, remember–gets rip-roaring drunk. Duke, Gaia’s friend and helper, is a nuanced character with plenty going on. Sheriff Briar is also engaging, and I enjoyed watching the relationship between him and Gaia evolve. Gaia herself is complex and multi-faceted, particularly once we learn more about her history.

The pacing is great, and the challenges and battles truly are cinematic and vibrant. There’s plenty of tension, and the final battle and the revelations that come with it are fantastic. It reveals an extremely creative backstory that’s well worth uncovering.

I definitely enjoyed this book, and I hope Jeschonek puts out more books in the series!

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Review: “Devil’s Shoestring,” Stefon Mears

Pros: Truly engaging world, plot, and characters
Rating: 5 out of 5

Stefon Mears’s Devil’s Shoestring (Spells for Hire Book 1) features Heath Cyr, a conjure man living in Portland. He casts spells and makes potions for hire. Now his landlord has a rather compelling offer for him, but it requires him to find the Black Book of Sant Cyprian. This is a powerful, evil grimoire that disappeared from the Vatican. Many people are searching for it, and some of them would be happy to take out the competition. Heath isn’t even sure he wants anyone to have the book–but then, it may be indestructible. His friends Colin (a “stoner chic” guitarist with a yuppie-fancy condo) and Nariko (a fierce young Japanese woman Heath used to be involved with) agree to help him find the book and figure out what to do with it. In order to get the book, however, Heath is going to have to go up against a very powerful conjure man–his Uncle Andre, who once tried to kill him as a sacrifice to Baron Samedi.

I love the narrative style and tone of this book, and found it very quotable:

“Maggie?” said Heath. When she popped her head up to look at him, he continued, “Do other people get to drink here without getting threatened?”
“All the time,” she said. But then she winked. “But not the interesting ones.”

There’s a good handful of battles and attacks of various types, leading to plenty of fun shenanigans. The magic system is fascinating. While there’s an underlying intuition to Heath’s Hoodoo–it isn’t all about rote–there are certain rules to be followed and formulas to be cast. The world incorporates a variety of magical systems, and Colin and Nariko use different traditions and methods than Heath does. It would be easy for the magic to feel arbitrary and random, but somehow it never does. You can feel the belief, effort, and training that go into each practitioner’s work.

Casting in Colin’s kitchen felt like he’d been hired by Martha Stewart to hex Oprah on a shoot for Better Homes and Gardens.

The characters are fun to read about. I particularly enjoyed the dichotomy between Colin’s outward persona and his well-decorated living arrangements. I also really want to know more about Nariko’s magical methods. We mostly see Heath’s work in this first volume, with some of Colin’s because parts of the story happen in his condo, which his magic protects. I also love the relationship between Heath and his Uncle Andre. There’s a lot of resentment and animosity there, but there’s also a strain of familial loyalty, some respect between colleagues, and a dash of actions that are constrained by certain rules. It’s a complex relationship. Also, the grimoire is a smartass, and Mears does a much better job than I’m used to seeing of expressing how a sentient item might communicate.

This is a great book that I found totally engaging and well worth the time and money to read. I look forward to reading more!

“Are you telling me you were almost killed by a dead, homicidal woodpecker?”

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Review: “Stars Like Cold Fire,” Brent Nichols

Pros: Engrossing, intriguing military sf
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Brent Nichols’s Stars Like Cold Fire introduces us to officer trainee Jeff Yi. He and his good friend Carolita (Carrie) Doolittle are each outcasts in their class of twelve. Jeff is Chinese, and most of the higher-ups are also Chinese, so his classmates see him as having an unfair advantage and thus seek to take him down a peg (or five) at every opportunity. Carrie is from Ryland, a planet that’s threatening to go to war with our heroes. After surviving the Naval Academy, Jeff hopes things will get better. But before he even gets his first assignment several men try to kill him. Apparently Jeff’s father is a hero who killed a man who attempted a coup, and his followers, the Carverites, see Jeff as a symbol they need to destroy. To keep Jeff safe from officers who sympathize with the Carverites, he’s given his own tiny command, of a small stealth ship that’s going out to patrol the border with Ryland. (Note: Jeff is a queer character.)

Naturally Jeff isn’t seen by his more experienced crew as being ready to command them, which seems to confirm their belief that Chinese officers benefit from favoritism. His own second in command bullies him, the cook makes excellent food for others while ruining his meals, and so forth. This part of the book was a bit hard to read for me–I find it difficult to read about bullying. Luckily it doesn’t take too long before Jeff starts getting clever, finding ways to win over or overcome his crew. He clearly does have the capacity to become a great officer; he just got thrust into the role of command before he was ready. When he starts, he doesn’t even know how to draw up a duty roster, or even whether that’s his job or his second’s.

I love the characters in this book. They all have depth and interest to them. Jeff’s crew (seven plus himself) is small enough to let us get to know the individuals and their quirks. Jeff comes up with some very creative ways to work with, through, and around his crew, although it doesn’t always work, which is also a nice touch.

Jeff’s ship is not any kind of warship, so you won’t see a lot of extensive space battles. There’s one or two, however, in which Jeff and his crew have to be doubly creative because they have so few weapons. There are also some great escape sequences. The action is engrossing and tense and kept me riveted to the page.

This is a delightful bit of military SF escapism. Well worth the read!

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