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review 2017-02-21 06:20
"It's going to be fine. Assuming we survive."
The Curse Mandate (The Dark Choir Book 3) - J.P. Sloan

The Curse Mandate

by J.P. Sloane


Alright, this proves it: Dorian Lake is a trouble magnet. All the man wants to do is train his new apprentice and find his dislocated soul, and maybe make a living from his job as a hex-maker and his new gig as a bar owner. But fate--or knowing Dorian, it's probably karma-- just refuses to cooperate. Instead, he finds himself promising to help out his apprentice's brother with a nasty curse and finds himself embroiled in a nasty string of mysterious jinxes that threatens to bring the Presidium-- the governing body of American magicians-- right down on his head. As he puts it:

"The Presidium's about to go on a tear. Last time that happened, we got the Red Scare. Before that, Manifest Destiny."

Oh, and the demon he sold his soul to before it went walkabout is asking for a new deal while there's still time to make one.


If you're addicted to urban fantasy and looking for a Dresden Files analogue, then in some ways, this could be a good fit. There's a less-than-thriving magic business, a basement where magical experiments are conducted, a young and attractive apprentice that the narrator has an exasperating tendency to salivate over, and even the extreme overuse of a few catchphrases. (Ever since I read the Dresden Files, I've winced every time I've read "arched an eyebrow" or "shambled." In the Dark Choir series, on the other hand, there are far too many "sniffles," "grumbles," and "smirks," usually when words with a neutral connotation are more appropriate.) On the more entertaining side, both have a protagonist who eschews technology because of magic's ability to "put a whammy on electronic devices", and even a detective from "Special Investigations," a unit I'm pretty sure exists only in Canada and the world of Harry Dresden. I found Wren, this series' answer to Charity Carpenter, a lot more likeable. There are also many distinctive worldbuilding, from the far more secretive Presidium to the practice of geomancy to the weird world of the stregha. This book, in particular, greatly fleshes out the shadowy Presidium, dipping into an enjoyable early American alternate history.


However, despite all of the similarities, I found the tone radically different, both darker and more (intentionally) morally ambiguous than anything the Dresden Files can serve up. To start with, the magic of Dorian's world is a hell -- if you'll pardon the pun-- of a lot nastier. The powerful stuff ranges from chaos magic to Netherwork -- curses powered by the demonic "Dark Choir" -- to scary forces channeling the nastier aspects of nature. Dorian's magic is primarily hexwork based on what he blithely describes as "karma." Don't get me wrong; it still has its fun and silly moments--my favourite involved the magical properties of smiley faces-- but all of that moral ambiguity add a hell of a lot more suspense to the brew because the reader is left genuinely concerned about whether Dorian will slide off the moral event horizon. I found the plot itself somewhat problematic because of its tendency to completely drop subplots at arbitrary moments, but this additional moral suspense kept me simultaneously engaged and frustrated.

I don't even know what to make of the Presidium plot--it seems insane to me, but hey, I think the ringleaders probably were insane-- but I was quite irritated by the way the Ches/Ricky subplot was completely dropped. After Ches leaves, I think Dorian only mentions her a few times, and he doesn't seem even remotely preoccupied with her fate. (What a dick.) Also on the list of "wtf, Dorian?" moves was bringing Edgar along on the suicide mission.

(spoiler show)

Both Dorian and his allies take actions that made me cringe, and I still don't know where the series is heading, or just how much of an antihero Dorian will become. It's something of a refreshing change from cookie-cutter UF. When combined with a mystery I found utterly perplexing, all of this made the book nearly impossible to put down. 


As for Dorian himself, he's still pretty much the guy you love to hate, but what I really appreciate about this series is that it is so very self-aware of the protagonist's flaws. The other characters continually confront Dorian with his general entitled, self-obsessed, obnoxiousness. They call him out in the way he talks down to everyone, the way he believes he deserves to win, the way he demands loyalty of others long before he grants it to them, the way he stumbles into situations he doesn't take the time to understand. One asks:

"Why do you make everything about you when it isn't? And when it actually is about you, you make it about everyone else."

So sure, Dorian is annoying and seriously flawed, the novels don't try to convince us otherwise, which makes all the difference. Plus, there are the side characters. As in previous books, I have significant issues with the way women are characterized: they're all pretty much seductresses, naifs, or in the rare cases they do manage to gain power, they're depicted as animalistic. But hey, that's a criticism that is pretty much innate to the genre. Series staples Edgar and Wren make an appearance, as does Ches, the rather conflicted character of the last book, and Julian Bright, ex-politician-assistant and current bar owner. One character I was quite happy to see again was Reed Malosi, the guy Dorian kept calling "Penn State", and he has a much more central role here, and I love his character even more.


In the increasingly overcrowded world of urban fantasy, J.P. Sloane adds some new elements. Despite much of the standard machinery, from a struggling business to a sexy apprentice, Dorian himself is unique, both in his own unabashed flaws and the risk that he'll genuinely go Dark Side. Although I don't say this often, I suspect the Dark Choir series would be quite difficult to read out of order, so if this book sounds intriguing, I'd suggest checking out The Curse Merchant first. If you're looking for a new UF series, the Dark Choir series is worth a look. I don't know where this series is heading, but I'm definitely in for the next book.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-12-26 05:50
"Tonight we rise as one and change the world!"
Battle Hill Bolero - Daniel José Older

Battle Hill Bolero

by Daniel José Older


Bone Street Rumba. Half-Resurrection Blues. Midnight Taxi Tango. Battle Hill Bolero. From the titles alone, it's clear how important an influence music is on Older, and his love of rhythm and texture can be felt through the pages. Sure, it's a story about ghosts and humans duking it out against supernatural monsters, but for me, the series is just as much about New York City, the backstreets and communities that half-dead Carlos Delacruz and his full-ghost and human friends inhabit, from the juxtaposition of layered history in the ghost world to creeping gentrification to chatty santeros to the clash of cultures on the city streets. In Battle Hill Bolero, the story really picks up its tempo.


If you've read my reviews before, you probably know I'm somewhat cavalier about series order-- even in this case, I started with Midnight Taxi Tango (#2) and only recently went back to read Half-Resurrection Blues (#1). So please take my word for it when I say that this book simply won't work without the previous two in the series. (In fact, that realization, which occurred within the first chapter of this book, is the reason why I went back to read the first book.) Any discussion of the plot necessarily involves spoilers for the previous books, so consider yourself warned.


After the slow buildup in the previous books in the series, the rebellion against the Council has finally reached boiling point. After a host of mutual misunderstandings, Carlos and Sasha are finally trying to work things out, complicated by the revolution exploding around them. Battle Hill Bolero is chock-full of battlescenes, and some of them are pretty awesome. However, I did find it surprising that, given the series' focus on exploring the humanity of the other characters, there was so little concern for the sanctity of the lives (or unlives, as the case may be) of the adversaries. This is a civil war that pits friend against friend and coworker against coworker. How did the fight against the Council become a fight against a faceless enemy? I also don't tend to find plotting to be Older's strong point, and this book was no exception. I never really understand why the antagonists--and some of the protagonists-- do what they do; their often contradictory actions seem to serve only the plot.

One thing that drove me slightly nuts was Carlos's entirely inconsistent status as secret rebel. At one moment, they're looking for a traitor; at another, he's going out to a bar with them; at another, they offer him a job; at another, they're attacking his house. It was logically inconsistent and didn't even really drive the plot. The ngks were another issue. While it was gratifying to see all the pieces of the previous books come together, I have no clue how or why they got involved, and why anyone thought it was a good idea to employ the magical equivalent of a nuclear attack. And while it was interesting to finally find out what happened at Carlos's death, it was sort of a letdown. Honestly, the whole "murder their whole families" thing still makes no sense to me, particularly given that Carlos and Sasha had no idea who they were in their previous lives anyway. But the biggest issue was, of course, Flores. Other than to drive the plot, what was the motivation for all the insane actions he took, from sending them to the Web to starting a war against them to bringing in Caitlin? He was basically a plot device, and a shallow one at that.

(spoiler show)


I'm drawn to these books because of the vivid glimpses of New York that Older gives us, and the diverse characters, not because of the plot or action scenes. And I absolutely loved some of the characters introduced here, from Kris the take-no-prisoners ghost to Red, a transgender pirate whose spunky spirit outlived his body by centuries, as well as old friends from previous books. And then there's the sheer love of language that imbues the story, and the sly situational humor that is such an integral part of urban fantasy. For example:

"Meetings are Satan's way of balancing out all the beautiful things in the world, like music."

We even get an enjoyable cameo from Shadowshaper as well as a few hints about the next mythological entities Carlos and the gang will encounter. Battle Hill Bolero is a watershed book for the series. It absolutely cannot be read without the other books in the series, for the plot is filled with an unexpected but gratifying symmetry. I'm not sure where Older will take the series next, but I'm definitely in for the ride.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-07-31 23:29
"You gotta save the world for the right reasons, Paul."
Fix ('Mancer) - Ferrett Steinmetz

Fix ('Mancer #3)

by Ferrett Steinmetz


I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ferrett Steinmetz's Flex series is one of the most imaginative and unique urban fantasies I've encountered. The trilogy takes place in a world where passionate, obsessive belief actually has the ability to warp reality to match their internal vision. As the book puts it:

"If you believed with a diamond-hard conviction the universe should act in a certain way, sometimes it did. You didn't mean to make it do anything, it just… shuffled out of the way.

Someone with an unhealthy obsession with gaming might become a videogamemancer, causing bullets to bounce off skin or magicking portal guns out of thin air or causing people around them to patrol in repeated loops. An edumancer might actually be able to teach anything to anyone and make them remember every word. But 'mancy comes at a cost. When the universe is bent into an alternate system, it rebounds with flux: concentrated bad luck that targets the 'mancer and causes their greatest fears to come true. And when 'mancy stands off against 'mancy, as happened in Europe, reality can be so horrifically distorted that it can breach, opening a door for creatures from the Lovecraftian Dungeon Dimensions.


If any of this sounds interesting to you, check out Flex, the first book in the trilogy. From here on out, there may be spoilers for the previous books.


In some ways, Fix was a satisfying book. I love series that end, that resolve their plot arcs rather than dragging out character development and conflicts infinitely. As Steinmetz notes in the afterward, Fix is indeed the end of the trilogy, and I appreciated the sense of closure. However, at the same time, Fix was extremely difficult to finish. The previous books may have been dark, but Fix repeatedly verges on utter despondency. I believe that pacing is a delicate feat of acrobatics: if everything's too safe and easy and achievable, there's no suspense. However, when things are too hard and hopeless, where all of the protagonists' moves just make everything worse and worse, then there's nothing to keep the reader engaged and it's all too easy to give up and put the book down. Unfortunately, I think the first 75% of Fix falls neatly into the latter category. The protagonists--the people I've rooted for, admittedly with mixed emotions, for two previous books-- push so far past the moral event horizon that I felt alienated from them and just wanted it all to end. I kept putting down the book, coming up with any excuse to read something else. I had to force myself to take it up again again and again.


One of the things I've loved about these books is the protagonist. Paul is a bureaucromancer. He believes in laws and rules and order with so much passion that his faith actually bends reality. Needless to say, he's a bit on the OCD side. As someone who is compelled to turn the doorknob repeatedly in multiples of five when leaving the house to make sure it's really locked (not kidding about multiples of five, sadly), this makes Paul a very empathetic and relatable character for me. An example of why I love him:

Back in the days before Paul had fallen hopelessly in love with Imani, he would find himself seized by shameful urges in his dates' apartments [...] college dorms so cramped they were practically spooning; Paul laced his fingers together to avoid temptation. His dates always smiled when they noticed his discomfort.

"Whatcha thinking?" they'd ask.

"Can I…"

"Yes?" They'd tilt their chins, all but begging to be kissed.

"Can I rearrange your bookshelves? They're out of alphabetical order."

The dates ended shortly after that.

Paul's singlemindedness has always made him something of an antihero; after all, in the initial book, he's willing to sell drugs to gangsters to save his daughter and in the second book, his actions against the villain left me horrified. However, in this book, his descent is so abrupt that it wasn't possible for me to empathize or even comprehend his actions. Instead, I was left feeling disconnected, unable to empathise with Paul or see him as anything other than a villain.


'Mancers were always set up to be antiheroes. Their steadfast certainty means that they see the world in an inherently rigid and inaccurate way; after all, that's how they do magic. In this book, Steinmetz really examines the consequences of this rigidity. In some ways, I loved this introspective aspect and the ways it explored Paul's motivations and the repercussions of his actions, but it was also heartbreaking to watch him do some truly terrible things.

I was already feeling alienated by his lack of concern for the other 'mancers; burning down the home was the last straw. And that left his mass murder spree for me to suffer through. Even apart from the whole Unimancer thing, it really bothered me that he cared only for his daughter's life, not for the scores of 'mancers in his safehouses who were put into danger and subsequently captured by his recklessness. He didn't even spare them a guilty thought.

(spoiler show)


I forced myself again and again to pick up the book, and I'm glad I did. I love how the book continued to develop Imani and Aliyah's characters. I love that we finally get to see breach-torn Europe. I love that we learn more about the Unimancers and their system. And I also love the way Valentine's romance develops through the story. Without any spoilers, I found the ending profoundly satisfying and also sweet.* If you've read the other books in the series, then I don't need to recommend Fix to you--you're going to pick it up anyway. If you haven't, and the idea of an OCD paperwork-loving 'mancer protagonist sounds like fun, you should definitely take a look at Flex. As for me, I'm excited to find out what Steinmetz has in store for his readers next.


~~ I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my honest review. (Thank you!) Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.


*If you think that's spoilery, bear in mind that my definition of "completion" is apparently somewhat unusual, so don't necessarily assume a picture-perfect HEA with every plot thread wrapped up.

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review 2016-07-25 03:09
"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."
The Ghoul King: A Story of the Dreaming Cities - Guy Haley

The Ghoul King

by Guy Haley


For those of you who know me, the TL;DR version is this: I finished The Ghoul King in one sitting, and immediately turned around and purchased The Emperor's Railroad (I almost never buy books.) And now it's at the top of my to-read list.


The Ghoul King is short, but potent. Don't look for character development when reading this: it's pure nonstop action and captivating worldbuilding. The story takes place in a far-future America, after the collapse of society as we know it. The fallen world has become a theocracy, the rule of God pinned together by Dreaming Cities and ruled by the angels. Living dead and ghouls wander the earth, byproducts of a terrible plague that strikes at the whim of the angels. While the reader can recognize the power of the angels as some sort of advanced technology lingering in a fallen world, the characters themselves have no idea, and no way of distinguishing science from magic or from the power of God. As one character puts it:

"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."

There is so much to love about the worldbuilding. While I have a suspicion the setup may be more familiar to gamers, I got a huge kick out of the cross between western and magical theocracy. I loved mentions of "The Monastery of Sainted Electrics" or "Angel Makers" or radiation counters carried as common course.


My biggest issue with the book comes from a few throwaway lines in the book:

"I've been told back in the Gone Before there were many colors of men in the world, and they all fought and warred and ruined everything, so after God's wrath cleansed the Earth he mixed up all those left so there's only a few shades of skin. I have never seen so pale a man, almost white as a fish's belly. I didn't know such men still existed."

So it turns out that our ubermensch protagonist is white, and the only white man the narrator has ever seen, come to save everyone with his incredible mind and talent. Sigh.

Other than a few mentions of our white and blue-eyed protagonist that left a bad taste in my mouth, the rest of the book left racial issues alone, allowing me at least to pretend the whole "white saviour" thing wasn't happening. And as long as I could ignore that, I was utterly engrossed.


I love the idea of the Angels and the Dreaming Cities, and I can't wait to find out what makes them tick and what Quinn's actual mission is. In terms of series ordering, I read Ghoul King without The Emperor's Railroad and found it thoroughly comprehensible: Haley's style is to throw the reader directly into an initially bewildering world, slowly feeding them tiny pieces of backhistory and mechanics. I absolutely loved it. If you're looking for a short, wild ride with plenty of twists and captivating worldbuilding, The Ghoul King is definitely worth a look. Count me in for Knight Quinn's next adventure!


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-02-29 09:35
"War was monstrous. To win, you had to be a monster. And he was."
Javelin Rain: A Shadow Ops Novel - Myke Cole

Javelin Rain (Gemini Cell #2)

by Myke Cole


There's something really badly wrong with me. An example: I'm at the climax of a horrifically graphic battle scene where Jim Schweitzer, ex-SEAL and current super-zombie on the run from a secret government cell, is desperately trying to protect his wife and child from magic-wielding mercenaries who have come to take him back or take him down. Schweitzer's wife is fighting for her life, but another mercenary has her in his sights. Schweitzer acts. In the sudden silence, he gazes at the body of the man who tried to rip lightning out of the sky and use it to fry Sarah. And my brain immediately goes:
He's dead, Jim.

But here's the truly amazing thing about Javelin Rain: even with my brain inserting lyrics from "Star Trekkin" at inopportune moments, the book still managed to be nail-bitingly suspenseful, gut-wrenching, horrific, sad, and bittersweet in turn.

One of the things I love about Myke Cole is that when it comes to magic, he doesn't do pretty and he doesn't do nice. His zombies are no exception. Unlike the rest of the Operators in Gemini Cell, Schweitzer may still have his mind, but his face is sheet metal stretched over skull, his eyes are glowing silver orbs shining out from empty sockets. His body shows marks from all previous battles, carelessly stitched and duct-taped to hold it all together. Death has irrevocably changed him. (It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.) Throughout the story, Schweitzer struggles to come to terms with the fact that while consciousness remains, his life is over. He can never be a father to his son, never take him to soccer practice, never take his wife out to dinner. Even as he risks all to protect them, there are heartbreaking moments where even his loved ones treat him as the monster he is in so many ways.

Javelin Rain is a little bit hard to characterize in terms of plot. It's a second book, a "things fall apart" book, in which Schweitzer sets himself in direct opposition to Gemini Cell. It's a fugitive's story, a chase, a series of desperate last stands. But it's also a love story. An increasingly creepy, violent love story, because the longer Schweitzer stays dead, the more of his humanity he loses. If you read my reviews, you probably know by now that I don't do romance, but love stories aren't necessarily romances. They're not about passion; they're about commitment, about compromises, about trust, about two alien people trying to create something together. Throw in the fact that one member of the couple has veins of glycerol and is steadily losing his last vestiges of humanity, the other has a small child with a bad case of poison ivy, and they're both on the run from a relentless military black ops military organization, and the love story really takes on a unique flavor. As one character puts it,

"Magic is like cancer. You don't ask for it, and it changes everything."

Schweitzer and Sarah's story is not the only plot running through the book, but it was definitely my favourite. Perhaps half the pagetime is from the perspective of other members of Gemini Cell, including Eldredge, the chief scientist of the cell, and Jawid and Dadou, the sorcerers responsible for creating zombie beings like Schweitzer. I found the Jawid/Dadou subplot deeply and troublingly problematic. Jawid, the only Muslim character in the book, is a naive simpleton who parrots repressive religious dogma and wants nothing more than to own a wife and family. Religious simpleton characters irritate me in general, and to have Jawid the only Muslim character in the story left a bad taste in my mouth. Dadou, who has a history of abuse and sexual assault, uses her own sexuality to cynically dominate those around her, mostly because her higher command orders her to do so, something that isn't really dealt with in the story. I wanted to empathize with her, and certainly her story is tragic, but she makes it awfully difficult. My other major complaint with the story is that a bunch of major plot elements didn't make sense.



[Let's see:
(1) Why on earth would binding zombies into living beings make them more obedient? As far as I can tell, the Obedient Zombie Track Record is nil: one of them is running operations, one of them ran away, and the rest run wild. Why would an intelligent zombie be biddable? Wouldn't it have everything it wanted already? Equally, why would such a living zombie be "reliable, a known quantity", a "puppet"?
(2) On the same note, if Dadou really had the power to grab Sarah out of the soul-cyclone, then she already had complete power to make Silvers and to make living zombies. From the first book and from this one, we know the major problem is that the souls that come out of the vortex are just too strong. Yet if she really has the power to pick and choose, she could choose a weak soul, weak enough to be defeated by the Silver.
(3) On that note, the Soul Vortex. When I read it, I couldn't accept the vortex as the only end in the narrative because it's so damned depressing. Plus, harking back to Dadou's ability to yank anyone and everyone out of the whirlpool, it would mean that literally anyone could be used after death. Including Dadou. Do I smell a sequel? Personally, I'd rather the vortex be a single stop on the way to eternity, or eternal nothingness.
(4) Why on earth would Eldredge give up the knife? Surely it would be better spent protecting Patrick, because:
(5) If Sarah really wanted release, why couldn't she just go? Wasn't staying the hard part? It's not like the merc wanted her there. From what we know of the whole shared soul bit, leaving is easy. It's staying that's hard. So why didn't Sarah leave rather than be bait? ]

(spoiler show)


Schweitzer lived his life around the SEAL motto, "So others might live." But in this book, all of that starts to fall apart: we find out more about the Gemini Cell, their leadership, and their belief that they don't "have the luxury of ethical struggles." Gemini Cell suffers a bit from Second Book Syndrome. For one thing, I really don't think it can be read without the first book. For another, I can actually summarize the entire book, which demonstrates its simplicity. At the same time, it's an interesting step in the Gemini Cell saga, and there were plenty of shocking twists. Sarah underwent significant character development, and I find her one of the more interesting members of the cast. Javelin Rain also satisfied one of my biggest concerns with Gemini Cell. Schweitzer no longer sees himself as a sanctified paladin. He seeks to protect only his family by any means necessary. As he puts it:

"He didn't want to hurt anyone, but if he was going to be a monster, then he may as well be one to protect his own."

As always, the sequel is automatically on my to-read list. I'm dying to find out how Schweitzer's saga ends, not in least because hyperintelligent zombies don't make an appearance in the later Shadow Ops books, and I'm awfully curious about why. If you have any interest in creative, gritty, and graphic military urban fantasy, you definitely need to check out Cole's Shadow Ops.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

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