Author: Joshua Khan
Shadow Magic, vol. 1
My rating: 3 of 5
Thorn just wanted to find his dad and bring him home, but somehow he’s been kidnapped by slavers, bought and made squire by the executioner Tyburn, and dragged off to the shadowy kingdom of Gehenna where the dead are rumored to walk. Meanwhile, Lilith Shadow (Lily to the friends she mostly doesn’t have anymore) has been forced to take up the mantle of leadership over Gehenna following the tragic death of the rest of her family. Political tensions, forbidden magic, loveless engagements, betrayals, and murder run rife as these two teenagers try to find a way through the chaos.
I should point out right from the start that most people seem to like Shadow Magic more than I did–my dad loved it enough to pass it on to me, and the average rating on Goodreads is a 4.14 at the moment. And I did enjoy the story for the most part in the moment, although I also have a number of issues with it. It’s a fast-paced read that never takes a breath–seriously, you’re thrown from one perilous situation to the next the entire time, which does increase the story’s stickiness and engagement factor but isn’t really the best way to go about doing so. And honestly, overall, the story just feels kind of tropey . . . although, maybe that’s not even quite right. It’s perfect, but in a way that feels like the author tried too hard, like it was run through an algorithm of “what should be in a story” and all the major plot points were spit out from there. Which, again, really isn’t fair because I know the author worked hard to be creative and original, but that’s just the feeling I come away with. There were certainly things I liked–the concept of an ancient giant bat, the spitfire princess who breaks the rules, the boy who dares to defy those above him in station and befriend the princess. (But let’s be real, even those are kind of tropey . . . well, except the bat. That’s just plain cool.) Other things like the division of the kingdoms based on traditional elemental classes or the naming of everything in Gehenna based on dark, mythological things that are meaningful to some readers but have no contextual basis in the story world . . . I just don’t love those aspects of the story. As for the big whodunit mystery, it seems pretty obvious, and the red herring thrown into the mix just feels unnecessary. I guess I should remember that this book is written for a middle grade audience and is supposed to be exciting, fast-paced dark fantasy, but I would have still liked to see more real character development, some actual humor, a few moments to just pause and breathe. Not on my top recommendations, although it was an ok read and I think most people would likely enjoy it more than I did.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Things are changing in the small town of Midnight, Texas. First, some big corporation comes in to renovate and reopen the Midnight Hotel, a move that makes zero logistical or financial sense as far as any of the locals can figure. Then one of Manfred’s clients dies, and Manfred is falsely accused of stealing her jewelry, leading to a small fury of reporters and police coming through town. Naturally, this comes at the most inopportune time, since the Rev has a young guest who is growing at inhuman rates; not the sort of thing you want photographed. Obviously something must be done–the only question is, what exactly?
Going into the second volume of Harris’s series set in Midnight, I find myself continuing to be enchanted by these stories. Day Shift continues in much the same vein as Midnight Crossroad, developing the secrets of this tiny community and showing their united front in protecting the town. Over the course of the story, more character backstory unfolds. We get to find out what several characters are or what secrets they’re hiding. . . but there’s still enough mystery to make me want to come back for more! The story continues to be told from multiple characters’ POV, with additional characters such as Olivia and Joe being added in this volume. The mix of characters is pretty unusual, but I find them charming–sometimes at the same time as I find them shockingly dark or heartless. I suppose the fact that several of them aren’t exactly human contributes to that side of it, although that’s another thing that makes this town and its residents so utterly fascinating. This book brings a good balance of that–the lives of its unusual citizens–and plot–the death of Manfred’s client, the whole kerfuffle afterwards, the hotel opening. Plus the tone is just really down to earth and readable. Recommended.
Author: James Lovegrove
The Cthulhu Casebooks, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
The general public is well familiar with the stories of the great detective Sherlock Holmes as written by his friend and partner in crime-fighting, Dr. John Watson. What they don’t know is that those stories are just a cover, an embellishment of certain insignificant events in order to hide something of far greater import–something the public should never know about. Because, while in these stories, Holmes is presented as an extremely logical and brilliant man who always a scientific reason for events, the truth is that he and Watson have encountered things that defy science. Horrible, ancient things that could spell the end of mankind if left unchecked. And together, they have pledged their logic and skill to defending mankind from behind the scenes. This is the true story of their initial meeting and subsequent first encounter with the occult, as told by Dr. Watson himself.
Retellings and spinoffs of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories seem ubiquitous, and I’ve personally had mixed experiences with them. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows belongs to a niche segment of these stories, ones that–like Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”–cross over with the Lovecraftian mythos. It’s an intriguing mixture, and I found it to be quite well executed in this book. It is couched as being a confession of sorts, written by Watson late in life and never meant to be published. As such, it evokes a tone quite similar to that of the original Doyle stories–I actually found this aspect of it to be fairly convincing. The author makes a lot of comparisons between what was written in said stories and “what actually happened,” which is intriguing to say the least. I found my vocabulary challenged repeatedly, which was refreshing. Unfortunately (although perhaps necessary to evoke the correct feel), the writing expresses period-typical ways of looking at certain people groups, as well as some terminology for such, that could be offensive. Regrettable, that. The actual story and the way the mythology is interwoven into the story is quite well done, a credible way for Holmes to get dragged into this mess. All in all, I found Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows to be a solid, enjoyable story that I would recommend.
Author: Polina Dashkova
Translator: Marian Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5
When Mitya Sinitsyn is found hanged in his apartment, nearly everyone seems to arrive at the obvious conclusion that he committed suicide. But considering how strongly his wife denies the possibility of such a thing happening, family friend and journalist Lena Polyanskaya begins to pick at the threads of his death . . . and finds the obvious begin to unravel before her. The clues she discovers begin leading her on a dangerous trail going back fourteen years to a trip she, Mitya, and his sister Olga took as young professionals together. Because somehow, something that happened on that trip was significant in a way she never realized–if she can only figure it out before she ends up dead because of it.
Madness Treads Lightly is the first Russian psychological thriller/crime novel I’ve ever read. Actually, it’s one of only a few Russian novels I’ve read, period. I should probably remedy that. In any case, this was a worthwhile read, one that would likely be enjoyed by most people who enjoy crime novels in general. Plotwise, you’ve got an interesting story–not really a mystery, since it becomes pretty clear what happened and who committed the crimes. But it’s intriguing to watch Lena go all amateur detective while still being at heart a mom and a journalist–an ordinary woman, not some insanely skilled crime fighter or anything. There’s a lot going on, and a number of interlocking plot threads to follow, but it all comes together quite well. I honestly found the native look at everyday Russian culture and society in the 1990’s to be nearly as interesting as the actual plot, though. Things like the way capitalism and crime were interconnected, foods that were common, polite social customs, etc. are fascinating to see displayed in such a way that they’re clearly just a normal, unremarkable part of the characters lives. But Russian naming conventions, though; I still don’t understand. . . . One more thing of note is that, although I would certainly consider this a thriller of sorts, it has a pacing that wouldn’t fit with the typical Western conception of that genre. It’s more of a slow, steady unfolding of one plot element after another, which sounds kind of dull when I say it, but it actually fits the story and works. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Things in Sookie’s life had never been easy, what with her unwelcome gift/curse/whatever of telepathy, but they had definitely taken a turn for the stranger and more complicated once she started dating Bill, a vampire. Although the reprieve his presence gave her mind, what with being unable to read his, well . . . it certainly hadn’t been all bad, not by far. But Sookie’s life shows an extreme run of bad luck as she finds a coworker dead in the parking lot, gets summoned to Dallas to conduct telepathic interrogations, gets kidnapped, is attacked by a maenad, and fights with Bill. Not that she’s about to let all that stop her from investigating her friend’s murder and seeing justice done.
I found Living Dead in Dallas to be a solid follow-up to the first volume in the series, Dead Until Dark. It builds well upon the groundwork that was laid in the first book, developing Sookie and Bill’s relationship, getting Sookie further embroiled in vampire Eric’s schemes, and bringing some new mysteries and dangerous elements to add to the overall intensity of the story. The author does well keeping that small-town Southern girl vibe going, even when Sookie is dumped in the big city of Dallas and expected to manage. We get some solid character development in this volume as well–you’ve got a self-educated, smart woman who is very brave and has strong convictions . . . yet who is also remarkably brittle at times. She’s an interesting character. The story itself is kind of all over the place, but in a way that actually ties together eventually. There’s enough going on to keep things engaging, and the pacing is good. Other than a fair warning that this is definitely an adult book, I would generally recommend Living Dead in Dallas, especially to paranormal romance and mystery lovers.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for sex, language, and violence, although it’s all relatively minor
In a lot of ways, Sookie Stackhouse is your average small-town Southern girl with strong ties to the community and a good job waitressing in a local bar. Oh, and a knack for reading people’s minds, which, not so average I guess. She calls it her “disability,” and although Sookie never talks openly about her gift, it’s given her a bit of a local reputation; “crazy Sookie” they call her. Of course, their opinions only seem more justified when vampire Bill Compton comes to town and Sookie–rather than running the other way like any sensible girl–starts dating him. And when the bodies of other girls in similar blue-collar jobs start piling up . . . well, the community starts to get nervous.
Cozy mystery meets vampire romance in this first installation of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, since I basically just had the cover, the fact that it seems fairly popular, and the knowledge that it was filed in the science fiction/fantasy section to go on. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised, although this isn’t exactly what I would typically pick up to read. The author does a brilliant job capturing small town Southern U.S., from the fine rules of polite behavior to the pine pollen that is ubiquitous in its season. Being a girl with small-town Southern roots myself, I was surprised at how well this aspect was depicted. The plot element of having vampires being “out of the coffin” as it were, being accepted as legal citizens, was pretty fascinating and led to some different potential plot directions that your average vampire story where they live in hiding and so much of the plot is just keeping their secret. But still, as much as I hate to do so, there’s a sense in which I have to compare Dead Until Dark to Twilight. Not in like a one-of-these-stories-was-copied-from-the-other sense; it’s just that with vampire romance stories, there are certain tropes that seem to keep coming up. The nice girl getting dragged into a dangerous life, the mysterious boyfriend, the shapeshifting (usually werewolf, so the change-up here was nice) other guy, the other (more dangerous) vampires coming around and causing trouble. Not saying any of that’s a bad thing–they’re tropes for a reason–but still. The romance was a little more that I would typically read; that’s probably one of the reasons this wasn’t so much my favorite story. Still, it was within acceptable bounds for the most part. As for the mystery aspect, it was a pretty typical small-town murder mystery, mostly notable for the fact that it was mixed with a vampire story at all. On the whole, Dead Until Dark was an enjoyable, quick read with good pacing and a great depiction of small-town life that I would recommend for those who enjoy both sexy vampire stories and a good mystery.