Review, Grave Witch, Kalayna Price

Book blerb
Not even death can save her now.

As a grave witch, Alex Craft can speak to the dead-she’s even on good terms with Death himself. As a consultant for the police, she’s seen a lot of dark magic, but nothing has prepared her for her latest case. When she’s raising a “shade” involved in a high profile murder, it attacks her, and then someone makes an attempt on her life. Someone really doesn’t want her to know what the dead have to say, and she’ll have to work with mysterious homicide detective Falin Andrews to figure out why…

Review
Set in a near-future where magic has reappeared and the Fey have come out of the proverbial closet, Alex Craft is a grave witch who able to raise the shades of the dead, making them visible to others. She is about to embark on the most difficult task of her career; be the first grave witch to raise a shade to testify in court. It will be a landmark change for her industry and has made her a target.

Or is she a target because of the favour she does for her estranged sister, looking into the death of a politician?

There are a number of engaging characters in this world, including a prophetic gargoyle, handsome and mysterious detective, even Death himself.

This is more of a murder mystery than many other offerings in the urban fantasy field, and it holds up well. Yes, it is somewhat formulaic and some sections could use a touch more editing, but overall it is engaging, funny, well-written, and action-packed. The romance is dealt with deftly, the myriad of threads all weave together well and the world is distinct and fully-formed.

I look forward to the next instalment in this series.

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Review, Play Dead, John Levitt

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Mason used to be an enforcer, ensuring that those magic practitioners without a moral compass walked the straight and narrow. But now he just wants to keep his head down, play guitar, and maintain a low profile with Lou, his magical canine companion. But Mason is down on his luck, and when a job with a large payout comes along, he finds the offer hard to resist-not knowing it might mean sacrificing what both man and his best friend hold most dear.

Review
Mason and Louie are back again!

I have been a fan of Levitt’s series since I picked up the first book, Dog Days, simply to fill a ‘buy 3 get 4’ pile. It turned out to be the best of the four books I purchased at the time, and Levitt has not let me down with any of the books in the series.

His main characters are so fully formed and interesting you wish you could find out where Mason is playing and swing by to take a listen. Bringing lots of bacon for Louie, of course. Levitt manages to juggle a number of diverse sceondary characters with flair, making them work well (or not) with others while still maintaining their own identity. The magic system set out in this world is exacting and well-documented, and even Mason`s innovations make sense given his minor abilities and tendency to improvise. Finally, he gives us a San Francisco that both is and isn`t so naturally that you are not all together sure that it all may not be true after all. San Francisco does have that magical quality about it, after all…

In Play Dead, Mason is once again forced to make choices based on his need to make ends meet (and haven`t we all been there), taking on an assignment from a black practitioner. It seems straightforward, but when dealing with those who deal in darker magics – and then Mason is involved – it turns out to be far more complicated, with implications that could change not only Mason and Louie`s lives, but the lives of all magic users in San Francisco. With a little au courant environmental activism and several double-crosses thrown in, this tale is one that winds tighter and tighter – like a snake – as things progress to its splashy conclusion.

The only drawback is the somewhat cliffhanger conclusion, which leaves this devoted fan desparate for more….

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Review, Hunting Ground, Patricia Briggs

Review
The werewolves are coming.

Bran, leader (Marrok) of the North American werewolves has decided that, much like the Fae had done several years before, it was time for werewolves to announce their existence to the world. To ensure that this goes smoothly he arranges for an international conference with the werewolf leaders from around the world to discuss how it should be done and sends his son and pack enforcer, Charles, and Charles’ mate, Omega werewolf Anna, as representatives at the summit.

While a conference may not sound all that interesting keep in mind we are talking about lychanthropes here and Briggs weaves an intricate tale of warring supernaturals with enough twists and subplots to keep the reader on the edge of their seats.

Here we are introduced to the leader of the British wolves, who is convinced he is Arthur reincarnated, as well as the mad French leader, the legendary Beast of Gévaudan, Jean Chastel. There is a neophyte Omega werewolf who is the source of conflict between the Italian and German delegates. Also a Fae, whose powers are shaded in secrecy, who will be acting as mediator for the conference. Did I mention that she and Charles has a romantic past? Roll all that together with a gang of vampires using werewolf magic and tactics to try and kidnap Anna and the couple really have their hands full.

In Briggs’ deft hands we also get to see how the couple are adjusting to their new mating. Charles with his violent background may not seem to be the best match for the traumatized Anna but with her he can show all the gentleness and caring that he has been forced to keep hidden. Anna experiences continued growth here as she slowly becomes more at ease with her relationship with Charles and gains more confidence in her intuition and ability to reason as well as her darker nature.

With vivid characters, intricate plotlines and beautiful writing this book is sure to please and can be read alone, though you would be better off reading the first book, Cry Wolf.

P.S. Look for the reappearance of Tom and Moira, first introduced in Briggs’ short story ‘Seeing Eye’ in Strange Brew

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Review: Already Dead, Charlie Huston

Review
Vampires in NYC. Heck, vampires controlling NYC. Very gangland.

In Huston’s take on popular vampire myths, Manhattan has been divided up by the vampire clans and our hero, Joe Pitt, is a well-connected ‘rogue’ just trying to find his way in the world that really doesn’t like rogues.

Joe is also a PI, who is hired by Marilee Horde, a prominent New York socialite, to locate her runaway teenage daughter, Amanda, who may be slumming with homeless goth kids in the East Village. Meanwhile, a “carrier” is on the loose, infecting its victims with a bacterium that turns them into brain-eating zombies and the group of uptown corporate-type vamps, The Coalition, want Pitt to find and destroy the carrier. After all, an influx of zombies does kind of bring unwanted attention to the undead community.

And what a fucked-up world this is! This story will suck you in, turn your stomach, and yet leave you wanting more. I loved the diversity of the type of vampire groups: corporate uptown-ers; 60s radicals, motorcycle gang-ers, tai chi higher being-seeking vamps, gangstah vamps, etc. Huston takes the usual vampire conventions, mixes in social commentary and adds enough violence to keep the most bloodthirtsy horror fan happy.

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Review: Staked, J. F. Lewis

Book blurb
UNREPENTANT UNIMPRESSED AND TOTALLY UNDEAD
Eric’s got issues. He has short-term and long-term memory problems; he can’t remember who he ate for dinner yesterday, much less how he became a vampire in the first place. His best friend, Roger, is souring on the strip club he and Eric own together. And his girlfriend, Tabitha, keeps pressuring him to turn her so she can join him in undeath. It’s almost enough to put a Vlad off his appetite. Almost.

Eric tries to solve one problem, only to create another: he turns Tabitha into a vampire, but finds that once he does, his desire for her fades — and her younger sister, Rachel, sure is cute. And when he kills a werewolf in self-defense, things really get out of hand. Now a pack of born-again lycanthropes is out for holy retribution, while Tabitha and Rachel have their own agendas — which may or may not include helping Eric stay in one piece.

All Eric wants to do is run his strip club, drink a little blood, and be left alone. Instead, he must survive car crashes, enchanted bullets, sunlight, sex magic, and werewolves on ice — not to mention his own nasty temper and forgetfulness.

Because being undead isn’t easy, but it sure beats the alternative.

Review
Void City isn’t like other American cities. For one, well it is inhabited by a whole lot of supernatural creatures. One in particular, Eric, is not having a good, well, un-life. He is a vampire who owns a strip club and just woke up in an alley with no memory of how he got there (getting embalmed before you rise from the dead can play havoc with the memory) and had to kill a werewolf in self-defense. And wouldn’t you know it; the werewolf was connected. No, not that way: he was connected to a bunch of old-time-religion holy rollers who aren’t too pleased with vamps in general and strip club owning ones in particular.

In situations like this it is good to turn to your friends. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be very willing to help. His best friend and business partner is acting off and the woman who would have been his wife (if he hadn’t become a vampire) is getting on in years and cranky. Then there is his current girlfriend, Tabitha, who really, really wants him to turn her. When he gives in and does it instead of the happily ever after she’d expected, he loses interest in her, especially after he meets her younger sister.

These days, a vampire owning a strip club is cliché, but Lewis makes Eric a character well worth watching. He may have difficulty remembering things but he is still a young vamp and hasn’t lost his humanity. He runs his business with kindness, taking care of his girls – and donors – with respect and understanding. Sure he is crude, sarcastic and caustic, but he genuinely cares about the people around him and he works hard to try and protect them.

I found the world that Lewis build around Eric fascinating. Not only are the characters rich, the way he describes the vampire hierarchy is complex and original. Excellent work.

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Review: The Protector’s War, S.M. Stirling

Review
S.M. Stirling is one of the the best writers of alternate history fantasy out there. I also greatly enjoy Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill’s Carolus Rex series, as is Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series. I admit to some occasional confusion about what alternate history is versus what urban fantasy is (and don’t even get me started on paranormal romance). After all, urban fantasy does re-write history to some extent; making it include vampires, shapeshifters and zombies. I guess my definition is that if it is something that happens in the past (even if just 1998, as in this series case) that makes things spin off in a different tangent, well that is alternate history. If it is vampires, fairies and other supernatural beings doing stuff in modern, mostly-urban settings then it is urban fantasy. Just don’t ask me what happens in situations where in the past, vampires, fairies and other supernatural beings come out and make things spin off in a different tangent… that is just too confusing (though I’ll read those books, don’t get me wrong. Will just avoid classifying them).

Still, this trilogy is a great example of what a truly gifted writer can do: take the current world, change one thing and create a new world that is as believable as the one we currently live in (is this one real or is it just aliens playing marbles… you decide). Stirling provides us with descriptions of a land gone wild, complete with ruined cities and towns so convincingly crafted we can almost see them. He does dip into the usual writer’s foible of having the good guys be just so darn good, but his descriptions of land, man and beast are so authentic you can almost smell the woodsmoke and see all of those kilts flapping.

Despite its title, this is more of a set-up to the war between the Bearkillers/Mackenzies and the Portland Protective Association, than the actual war. It is like watching the chess pieces being moved about the board; setting up for the final moves. Sorry, I don’t play chess so will have to leave that analogy at that.

If you don’t have this trilogy (Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War and Meeting at Corvallis), I suggest you get them as soon as possible. They are intricately woven tales about how the world could be, and maybe even will be.

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Review: Dead to Me, Anton Strout

Book blurb
Psychometry – the power to touch an object and divine information about its history-has meant a life of petty crime for Simon Canderous, but now he’s gone over to the good side. At New York’s underfunded and (mostly) secret Department of Extraordinary Affairs, he’s learning about red tape, office politics, and the basics of paranormal investigation. But it’s not the paperwork that has him breathless.

After Simon spills his coffee on (okay, through) the ghost of a beautiful woman – who doesn’t know she’s dead – he and his mentor plan to find her killers. But Simon’s not prepared for the nefarious plot that unfolds before him, involving politically correct cultists, a large wooden fish, a homicidal bookcase, and the forces of Darkness, which kind of have a crush on him.”

Review
What happens when Good and Evil meet at the junction of bureaucracy?

Simon Canderous has spent years using his special gift of psychometry for nefarious purposes, but he is working for Good now, in the form of New York City’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs. Author Anton Strout’s description of life in the bureaucratic hell that is a government agency is spot on – even if the agency’s role is to protect the Good. Mountains of paperwork, fascinating but bizarre characters and the occasional zombie cleanup definitely make Simon’s determination not to fall back into a life of crime interesting.

While still trying hard to learn the job under the tutelage of his mentor Connor, Simon manages to find himself mixed up with a very confused ghost, evil cultists, a wooden fish, and a bunch of FOGies.

Much like the forces of Darkness, I too have a bit of a crush on Simon. Or maybe it is on Anton Strout for creating him. I love this world he has created and I am going to be eagerly waiting for the door to the bookstores to open on February 24th when the second Simon Canderous story, Deader Still, comes out.

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Review: New Tricks, John Levitt

Book blurb
Mason used to be an enforcer, ensuring that suspect magic practitioners stayed in line. But he gave all that up for a quiet life scraping out a living playing guitar, keeping a low profile with Louie, his magical… well, let’s call him a dog. Luckily, Louie has a sixth sense for danger, and Mason knows exactly how dead he’d be without him.

It’s Halloween in the Castro district of San Francisco, which means that for once Mason doesn’t have to worry about the fact that vampires and ghosts are stalking the streets. What he does have to worry about is how his old flame Sarah became the victim of an attempted possession – leaving her an empty shell.

Mason’s only clue is the green rune stone found is her hand…

Review
Mason is not having a bad year. He’s got no girlfriend, no money, no upcoming gigs; he’s even gone back to working as a practitioner just to make ends meet. He’s in a major funk, and even partying on Castro Street isn’t helping.

When he is called on to help find a fellow practitioner who has gone missing, Mason finds himself with a new mystery to solve: what – or who – had left one of his old flame’s an empty shell.

Poor Mason. He really doesn’t have much luck with his old girlfriends does he? And things don’t necessarily get better in New Tricks.

Mason is joined in this tale by the some of the same characters found in the first book – including the required Louie – as well as some new ones who prove intriguing, though I admit I did figure out whodunit early.

Still, as in the first book, the plot is very enjoyable. We are given an opportunity to learn more about the possible genesis of ifrits, including a theory which, when acted upon, results in the creation of a horrible and deadly situation. It also begs the other questions: how far should practitioners go to help themselves rather than others, and does the end justify the means?

After reading this book I am even more invested in this series, and eagerly looking forward to more tales about Mason and Louie.

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Review: Blood Lite, editor: Kevin Anderson

Book blurb
The Horror Writers Association Presents BLOOD LITE
…a collection of entertaining tales that puts the fun back into dark fiction, with ironic twists and tongue-in-cheek wit to temper the jagged edge.

Charlaine Harris reveals the dark side of going green, when a quartet of die-hard environmentalists hosts a fundraiser with a gory twist in “An Evening with Al Gore”…In an all-new Dresden Files story from Jim Butcher, when it comes to tracking deadly paranormal doings, there’s no such thing as a “Day Off” for the Chicago P.D.’s wizard detective, Harry Dresden…Sherrilyn Kenyon turns a cubicle-dwelling MBA with no life into a demon-fighting seraph with one hell of an afterlife in “Where Angels Fear to Tread”…Celebrity necromancer Jaime Vegas is headlining a sold-out séance tour, but behind the scenes, a disgruntled ghost has a bone to pick, in Kelley Armstrong’s “The Ungrateful Dead.” Plus tales guaranteed to get under your skin — in a good way — from Janet Berliner, Don D’Ammassa, Nancy Holder, Nancy Kilpatrick, J. A. Konrath and F. Paul Wilson, Joe R. Lansdale, Will Ludwigsen, Sharyn McCrumb, Mark Onspaugh, Mike Resnick, Steven Savile, D. L. Snell, Eric James Stone, Jeff Strand, Lucien Soulban, Matt Venne, Christopher Welch.

So let the blood flow and laughter reign — because when it comes to facing our deepest, darkest fears, a little humor goes a long way!

Review
I admit that I prefer to read a full novel to reading short stories, but sometime life is so busy that too many interruptions can cause you to lose the thread of the story you’re trying to follow. When I know things are going to be busy, and because I go through massive withdrawal if I am not reading something, I like to pick up a book of novellas or a collection of short stories. I know I may not like all of them, but if I’ve chosen well most of the stories will help me keep me from going cold turkey even when life is getting me down.

And Blood Lite certainly fits the bill. Sure there were a few stories that didn’t give me the chuckle that the Horror Writers Association promised, but overall I left happy with the results.

It started out well. Kelley Armstrong’s Ungrateful Dead left me laughing out loud at our heroine’s solution to the situation she’d found herself in. After all, a ghost may think you work for them but that doesn’t mean they can take advantage. They don’t really have a leg (or a body) to stand on…

Matt Venne’s story about the tribulations of poor Elvis Presley had me feeling for the man as he suffered through the bloodsucker blues.

I loved how Charlaine Harris’ An Evening with Al Gore kept me guessing, and satisfied with its environmentally sound conclusion.

And who hasn’t wanted to write a letter like the ones Steven Saville gives us in Dear Prudence?

Sharyn McCrumb’s Dead Hand shows that sometimes getting the chance of a lifetime, even when you’re dead, holds many more catches than you want to deal with.

And I’ve had many days off that didn’t turn out like I wanted them too, but Jim Butcher’s Day Off… worse than any I’ve had.

All in all, this is a fun collection of tales that you can revisit again and again.

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Review: Dog Days, John Levitt

Book blurb
First in a new urban fantasy series-with a bite as magical as its bark.

Mason used to be an enforcer, ensuring that suspect magic practitioners stayed in line. But now he scrapes out a living playing guitar. Good thing he has Louie, his magical…well, let’s call him a dog. But there are some kinds of evil that even Louie can’t sniff out. And when Mason is attacked by a supernatural assailant, he’ll have to fall back on the one skill he’s mastered in music and magic-improvisation.

Review
I am a cat person. I just want to say that at the outset. I don’t hate dogs or anything, just not as fond of them as I am of cats. Having said that, I love Louie.

Louie may look like a miniature Doberman Pinscher but he is actually an ifrit and packs a mystical wallop, and is very helpful in guiding his owner/slave/companion Mason through the supernatural mess he finds himself in.

I also totally ‘get’ Mason. He is a man who has embraced that which gives him joy: playing jazz guitar, something he does a great deal of skill. He does have his shortcomings though: playing jazz guitar doesn’t bring in many bucks, and Mason is also someone who gets bored easily, only able to hack regular gigs for a while. Therefore money is tight, but he accepts that because he wants to live life the way he wants.

Oh and he also has magic. Once again, he uses it in his own way: recognizing that he isn’t the strongest user, but he is good at improvising – something he learnt from his music – and able to put that knowledge to good use when he finds himself in a jam. He is also very ethical in his use of magic, though he has a fairly laissez-faire attitude towards other magic-users.

Mason is happily minding his own business when he is attacked magically. His search to find out why leads him back to a life he’d left behind, a group of enforcers; people who ensured that magic practitioners stayed in line and, of course, the woman he’d once loved. His search for the truth behind the attack, the disappearance of magic practitioners and ifrits and the emergence of strange and mystically powerful jewels all come together in a compelling urban fantasy tale.

One thing I particularly enjoy is the way John Levitt paints a picture of a San Francisco, and its denizens, that is so close to reality. The people who have magic powers don’t seem all that different from the people you’d normally bump into: a buttoned-up but openly gay corporate type, a couple of leftover hippies, the driven and ambitious women, back-to-nature sports type, and various street people. People we would all recognize but who, in Levitt’s world, have that extra ‘umph’. Despite this, Levitt doesn’t stereotype any of them. They are archetypes we recognize but ones that don’t necessarily do what we would expect of them. Very refreshing.

This is a series that I would highly recommend to fans of the genre. If you like urban fantasy, this is one of the best examples of it.

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