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.
Mangaka: Taiyo Matsumoto
Translator: Michael Arias
My rating: 4 of 5
During her work as a tour guide at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cécile is introduced to a mysterious, captivating side of the museum not seen during its open daytime hours. For at night, the watchmen wander the quiet, echoing halls and tell stories of those rare individuals who hear the paintings speak to them. And at night, the cats who live secretly in the Louvre come out to play and bask in the moonlight. As as Cécile becomes more involved in this nighttime side of the museum, she finds two stories inexplicably intertwined–an old night watchman who swears his sister disappeared into a painting when they were children, and a small white kitten who never seems to grow.
Cats of the Louvre is an incredibly unique and unexpected work. For starters, although it is technically manga, the style is more artsy than your typical manga, including detailed depictions of actual works of art at the Louvre. And then, placing the setting specifically in the museum and focusing on one particular tour guide, a couple of night watchmen, a little lost girl, and an odd collection of cats . . . it’s unusual, yet it makes for something of a magical combination, actually. Throwing in a touch of magical realism–again, unexpected, but that really was the final piece that tied everything else together. Like, the plot is all kinds of odd and surreal and a bit meandering, but by the end, I found myself really involved in the story and characters, to the point that I actually cried a bit at a particularly moving scene. One thing that I found truly strange and a but off-putting is the way in which the cats are drawn sometimes looking like actual cats and sometimes as anthropomorphic cat-people, often switching between the two during the same scene. It’s part of the flavor of the story, and it actually makes some of the more fantastic bits make more sense . . . but it’s still just really strange. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed Cats of the Louvre and would recommend it to anyone who likes art, cats, and a certain amount of surrealism in their stories–whether they generally like manga or not.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 4
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah’s team at Wona is coming together nicely–new name, cool new stuff to try out in-game. But not everything is settled and calm. As evidence arises that the Dream State beta-testers–including his girlfriend Chloe’s brother–may actually still be alive and held captive, Noah finds himself pulling together a team IRL to find them. And it seems likely that this dangerous mission will require all their skills (plus some fancy new gadgets) to pull off without losing even more of their friends.
Lost in the Game is a solid, enjoyable installment in this intriguing LitRPG series. I am again impressed by the world-building going on here, particularly when it comes to settings described in-game. And even though this volume is distinctly more focused on the real-life setting and plot, there are still some pretty awesome in-game moments–new skills that Noah gains which lead to insights into the Dream State’s ghost, dungeon crawls to dig for information on the missing beta-testers, even a big tournament with Siena the Blade. As with previous volumes, the descriptions of things in the game are immersive, detailed, and clear without bogging the story down unnecessarily; I truly admire how Keene pulls this off so seemingly effortlessly. Back in the real world, there’s some pretty intense mystery and intrigue developed as well, as Noah and his team attempt to track the missing beta-testers to an actual location. Things get . . . really real, more so than I was expecting, but it works, heightening the adventure and mystery, advancing the character development, and pushing the plot along. Again, as I’ve found in the other volumes of this series, Noah seems kind of calculating and perhaps even manipulative as a character; however, his character is well-written and consistent, and I find myself enjoying reading even while being concerned by his personal choices as a character at times. Lost in the Game, as well as the rest of the series, is a book I would definitely recommend, particularly to gamers and those who enjoy LitRPGs.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Lost in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody, vol. 11
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The 1911 season looks to be one full of drama for Amelia Peabody what with the weddings, the weird family drama between Nefret and Ramses, the political intrigue and drug dealers on the loose, the random child popping up claiming to belong to Ramses. And of course, the rash of forgeries attributed to Ramses’ best friend, David–falsely attributed, obviously, but proving that is being a bit challenging. Maybe it’s a good thing the only site Emerson was able to get this season is a bit boring on the whole.
I absolutely always love Peters’ Amelia Peabody books; there’s some great history combined with lots of thrills, good humor, suspense, mystery, and romance. Basically, they’re just good historical adventures all around. The Falcon at the Portal fills this excellently, although I do have to say that it’s just generally less cohesive than some of the other stories in this series. Honestly, there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to keep track sometimes of what’s actually important. Add to that the fact that you’ve got three separate narrators (even though I love having Nefret and Ramses’ perspectives), and the story can be a bit all over the place at times. But really, I feel like the actual mystery plot takes second place to the character development and drama in this volume anyhow, so it’s not such a big deal to miss plot threads at times. And wow is there some drama going on here! For one, we’ve got some actual development in one of my favorite (of all time, not just of this series) ships–Nefret and Ramses. Plus the whole mess with Amelia’s nephew Percy and the Americans who keep hanging around. And of course, this is where Sennia joins the family. So yeah, lots of drama, a good touch of heartache, but lots of fun, too. Recommended.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.
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.