Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Dead Until Dark

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.

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Moonstruck, vol. 1: Magic to Brew (Graphic Novel)

Author: Grace Ellis

Illustrator: Shae Beagle

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Julie lives in a world where magic and mundane go together seamlessly–for instance, her best friend and fellow barista Chet just happens to also be a centaur. Or at least Chet was a centaur, until they tagged along on a date with Julie and her new girlfriend Selena to a back-alley magic show . . . where the magician stole their magic and left them a normal human. Horrors! Now the friends are on a mission to trap this magician and get Chet’s magic back before any more magical people are hurt.

Moonstruck was one of the sweetest, most charming graphic novels I’ve read in a long time. Right from the start, the cute art and pastel palette are just delightful. Add in the marvelous variety of character designs, not only in the main characters but also in the background, and you’ve got a story that’s visually engaging and charming. There’s a huge amount of diversity presented here, too, but (major kudos to the creators) in a way that feels natural and relatable, not forced or contrived. The characters are who they are, and I love them for it. As for the story, a great deal of it is character building and relationships, both romantic and friendships–lots of great friendships here, and the love story is sweet. Add in the coffee-shop dynamic and some light-hearted humor, and you’ve got a pretty cozy story. But then you’ve also got a certain amount of adventure, as these friends deal with Chet’s loss of magic and their subsequent tracking down and defeating of the magician. It’s a good balance. Probably more than anything, I love the characters and how they deal with real, complex emotions and situations. I love that Julie deals with worries and uncertainty, and I really want to see her backstory explored more in future volumes–like, we know she’s not all about being a werewolf, but why does she not like that about herself? In any case, I would definitely recommend this first volume of Moonstruck, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Overtime (Novelette)

Author: Charles Stross

The Laundry Files, vol. 3.5

My rating: 4 of 5

Lucky for him (ha), Bob has pulled the distinct privilege of working the night watch at the office over the Christmas holiday–by virtue of being out sick while everyone else was putting in their vacation requests. Go figure. Oh well, theoretically, it should be a boring job sitting around babysitting a phone that never rings . . . unless the unthinkable happens. But then, considering Bob works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is protecting the world from the things that go bump in the night and considering his stellar run of luck so far, why shouldn’t the unthinkable happen, right?

When I picked up Overtime, I was definitely expecting the fabulous combination of eldritch horror and office mundanity that it offered. What I wasn’t expecting was the Christmas theme. And yet, it works marvelously, providing a delightful comedy-horror plot that ties this little novelette together brilliantly as Bob deals with temporal anomalies, an eldritch interpretation of Santa Claus, and the challenges of fighting back the apocalypse using only office supplies, used Christmas decorations, and leftover treats from the office Christmas party . . . theoretically the last Christmas party the Laundry will see if the predictions offered by a Mr. Kringle (that only Bob can even remember now) are to be believed. The writing offers the same engrossing, droll style found in the earlier Laundry books (and yes, I would recommend reading at least The Atrocity Archives first for some context),  but with a slightly more story-based focus and with less techno-babble . . . probably due largely to the short length of the story. Recommended for those who enjoy a sardonic tone and a solid urban fantasy and/or comedy horror story.

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Mononoke Sharing (Manga)

Mangaka: coolkyosinnjya

Status: Ongoing (currently 3 volumes)

My rating: 2.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience. This is at least a hard T+ with lots of fanservice. Fair warning.

Yata is an average student going to school on scholarship and desperately in need of a cheap place to stay. She finds one, but her five roommates are, well, different. As in, not human. But hey, the rent’s cheap. She’ll make it work, right?

I have so many mixed feelings about Mononoke Sharing. By the same author as Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, this story shares the messy-cute art style and the light-hearted slice-of-life comedy with a supernatural element of that manga. But Mononoke Sharing is a lot less serious–not so much the drama and deep backstories and such, more goofy slapstick and waaaay more sexual content and ecchiness and flat-out fanservice. The fanservice aspect is one reason that I didn’t like this so much; it’s just too much. Plus, I’m not so much into that sort of humor. This story has been described as “oddball,” “over-the-top,” and “raunchy,” and yeah, all of those descriptors fit. But at the same time, I love the concept–a human dumped in a house full of yokai, or mononoke as they’re called here, and just doing life with them. As with Miss Kobayashi, the whole otherworldly-beings-interacting-with-normal-life aspect is intriguing and amusing. And the relationships that are developed between these roommates can be quite sweet at times. I also really loved that, while this story included some more commonly seen beings such as a devil and a kitsune, it also included less common ones such as a kappa, a yuki-onna, and even a stretchy-necked rokurokubi. They’re interesting characters, even if some aspects of their character design are so physics-defying as to be frankly annoying and very weird. So yeah, mixed feelings. . . .

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Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid: Kanna’s Daily Life (Manga)

Mangaka: Mitsuhiro Kimura

Spinoff of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid by coolkyosinnjya

Status: Ongoing (currently 3 volumes)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Kanna originally left her homeworld for the human world to follow after Tohru, her dragon senpai. Finding Tohru happily settled in with the human Kobayashi-san, working as her maid, Kanna moved in with them–the more the merrier, right? Now Kanna is living disguised as an (adorable) human elementary-school student, going to school, making friends (especially Saikawa, who has a huuuuuge crush on her), dealing with bullies, and generally experiencing human life . . . all without revealing her true identity as a dragon herself.

This adorable, fluffy manga is exactly what it sounds like: a spinoff of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, focusing on the daily activities of the little dragon girl, Kanna. While knowledge of the original manga is not required to enjoy this spinoff, it is referenced, and characters relationships and such will be easier to understand with at least a bit of prior knowledge of the original story. But this story really does hone in on Kanna specifically. There are a lot of chapters about her friendship with Saikawa (and yes, those have an innocent but distinctly present shoujo-ai flair, much like the interactions between Tomoyo and Sakura in Cardcaptor Sakura), which are really cute and sweet. There are also several family-centric chapters, with Tohru, Kobayashi, and Kanna just enjoying life together. And for those who love the extended cast, yes there are chapters including Fafnir, Ilulu, Shouta, and the lot. The actual stories are very cute slice-of-life episodes, each one focusing on a specific topic, much like in the original manga. An interesting distinction here, however, is that each chapter is divided into single-page 4-koma comics; a nice change-up, especially if you enjoy the 4-koma style (I do, personally). As for the art, it’s similar enough to coolkyosinnjya’s in the character designs and such that it’s hard to tell a difference, although the art here may be just a smidge neater–again, it’s all really cutesy. Recommended for fans of the original manga (although do be aware that it’s by a different author) and for those who just enjoy cute, slice-of-life manga.

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Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (Manga)

Mangaka: coolkyosinnjya

Status: Ongoing (currently 6 volumes)

My rating: 3 of 5

Warning: Although this is technically rated T (actually, I think the first volume may even be rated A) there’s definitely some ecchiness and partial nudity, so . . . fair warning

Kobayashi-san lived a fairly quiet, normal life as an average office worker and closet otaku. . . . That is, until one night in a moment of drunken unthinking, she invited a dragon to live with her. That’s right, a dragon–wings, scales, the works. The next morning, she finds a cute girl wearing a maid outfit and sporting horns and a tail staying in her home. Weird, but hey, Tohru certainly keeps life interesting, and her undying devotion and eagerness to help is kind of appealing. With Tohru’s presence, Kobayashi’s normal life has disappeared, but can she really find it in herself to truly regret it?

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is one of those cute, episodic seinen stories that just sort of meanders through life in its own charming way. Honestly, there are elements of it that kind of remind me of Yotsuba&!, even down to the way a lot of the chapters follow the formulaic “Tohru and this or that ordinary thing that she’s just now interacting with.” Because Tohru isn’t accustomed to the human world, you get some unique, quirky perspectives on things that seem everyday to us. There’s a lot of relationship building and re-evaluation going on throughout this story as well, so it’s kind of more of a dramedy of sorts, because the humorous element is definitely present throughout. I guess there are elements that could almost be shoujo-ai flavored, but it’s in a way that could be totally platonic as well, so take your pick there. Again, fair warning that there are parts that are a bit more ecchi; that just seems to be the mangaka’s default, although it’s not quite as much here as in, say, Mononoke Sharing. The art itself is cute and fits the story, again in a way that seems pretty typical of the mangaka’s usual slightly sloppy/loose sort of style. Recommended for those who like cute seinen slice-of-life stories but who are open to a bit more of a fantasy flair.

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Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Author: Paul Krueger

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience for language, alcohol use, and mild sexual content

All throughout her school years, Bailey Chen has been a force of nature, succeeding the first time with everything she tries. But after graduating with a fancy business degree, she finds a grating disconnect in her experiences with adult life. While trying to get a “real” job that actually utilizes her (significant) skills, Bailey settles for working at a bar–a job gotten for her by her childhood best friend, Zane, which could actually be a good thing, except for “The Fight” four years ago, since when they haven’t actually really talked. Like, at all. And the fact that he actually looks and acts like an adult now, nothing like the unkempt, goofy boy she remembers. And just to make Bailey’s life even more of a mess, while closing the bar one night, she stumbles on Zane’s secret stash of alcohol, mixes up a drink that has actual magical properties (she’s just a natural like that, remember?), and discovers a whole nasty world of monsters and alcohol-powered magic. And it’s looking more and more like her actually calling is less up-and-coming businesswoman and more magical monster-hunting bartender. Yikes!

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a volume I probably wouldn’t have picked up necessarily on my own (although the cover is distinctly tantalizing, don’t you think?); however, it came to my attention in a Humble Bundle I purchased–the Quirk Books one, surprise there. And you know what? It manages to be surprisingly good. Yes, it’s never going to be great literature, and it’s definitely something of a niche story. But . . . it manages to bring us a quirky, fun new-adult urban fantasy that’s solidly build from start to finish. It delivers an exciting story, some surprises, a messy-cute romance, and a fascinating magic system. Seriously, I think the whole cocktails-based magic thing–and the way the author develops it, complete with extracts from a “reference book” explaining things in more detail–is fresh and engaging. Add to the cool urban fantasy aspect some relatable, interesting characters and a sometimes painfully familiar expedition into the wonderful world of adulting and yeah, you’ve got a pretty neat story. Recommended for those just venturing into the whole adulting thing themselves, as well as for fans of urban fantasy, regardless of age or life experience.

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