Monthly Archives: March 2016

Firebug (Firebug #1)

Title: Firebug

Author: Lish McBride

Series: Firebug #1

Ava is a firebug, someone with the power to start fires with her mind. She tries to have a teenage life, but that’s hard when normal teen activities have to be restricted or redirected because of her ability. And it’s also hard because she’s bound to the Coterie, a group that governs the local supernaturals. Ava is an enforcer for the Coterie. Together with a half-dryad and a were-fox, she’s sent out to put down those Venus, the Coterie’s head, wants disposed. But when Ava gets in over her head, she’s got to hope she can escape the Coterie’s iron hold over her life . . .

This took a bit longer to get me really interested, but once it got going it was a great deal of fun. Ava has a bitter, hard edge to her personality, the result of a lifetime of trying to escape the Coterie only to fall within its grasp and become everything she feared. But once Lock and Ezra take a bigger role, the team dynamic the three of them have is the best thing in the book. Ezra, the were-fox, is unabashedly playful, while Lock, the half-dryad, is the almost over-serious adult. (And that makes the visit to Lock’s family even funnier… his relatives are amazing at asking awkward questions.)

I liked some of the deeper things that came out, too. Ava hates the Coterie with a passion and would be just as happy burning it all down, but for all that it’s being run like the mob, it still has a unique role to play for the various not-at-all to mostly-human supernatural entities in the area. I especially liked how Lock keeps challenging Ava’s desire to skip the “middle bits” and go right for the conclusion, pointing out that sometimes the process is equally important.

I also really like the worldbuilding. Ava’s firebug abilities aren’t free, though they appear so to onlookers. She has to try to gain weight to give her body fat to literally burn when she starts her fires, along with keeping her electrolytes and potassium levels high. Then there’s the sheer variety of creatures populating the pages (including some amusing weres).

My one disappointment is that there’s a bit of a nasty twist very close to the end, and the next book isn’t out yet so I can’t see how it will resolve. But if my only complaint is that the sequel isn’t here RIGHT NOW, that’s good enough for me. I rate this book Recommended.

The Hunting of the Last Dragon

Title: The Hunting of the Last Dragon

Author: Sherryl Jordan

Jude was the son of a swine herder, whose ambitions extended only as far as buying a new bow and perhaps finding a bit of excitement in his life. Then the dragon came and burned his village to ash. Sunk in grief, he falls in with a traveling group of entertainers, and gradually befriends the Chinese girl they have on exhibit. But destiny will pit him once again against the dragon that destroyed his home.

I made it over halfway before I just got too bored with this. The dragon is a faceless menace who is more known through the scorched villages it leaves in its wake. Jude spends a lot of the book in a funk of grief over losing his family, and even as he starts to get over it he’s still not that interesting of a character. Jing-wei is better, but even then I found her more interesting for the glimpses of what history was like than because I cared about her as a character.

I quit because I realized I was more interested in the mini-story unfolding through Jude’s quips to his scribe than the actual story proper, and even that wasn’t much.

This is set in the Middle Ages, somewhere in Europe. It has a higher level of diction than I expected for its age range, and some nice prose, but in the end I found what I did read generic and predictable and couldn’t motivate myself enough to finish.

I rate this book Neutral.

Watersmeet (Watersmeet #1)

Title: Watersmeet

Author: Ellen Jensen Abbott

Series: Watersmeet #1

Abisina is an Outcast in her village of Vranille, mostly for her dark skin and hair. Her mother is the town’s only healer, but it only buys her the right not to be thrown outside the walls entirely and left to the ruthless centaurs who prowl these lands. But when disaster strikes, and Abisina is left to fend for herself, she finds that not everything she has been told is the truth—not about herself, her family, or her world.

In a nutshell, this is a decent book about a young girl learning to overcome prejudice. Abisina may hate Vranille and its ways, but she’s picked up more of their mannerisms than she would care to admit, which makes dealing with nonhuman species such a challenge. Though it doesn’t help that many of those species would happily kill humans in a continuation of the atrocities both sides have been inflicting on each other.

I liked Rueshlan best. He’s an interesting man with some interesting gifts, and is one of the few with any level of magic. The explanation for power is completely missing, but it’s still fun to watch what he can do.

There also isn’t a lot done with history that isn’t relevant to the immediate story. The mines are a big part of Haret’s thoughts, but it all ends in a disappointing “I told you so.” And no clues are uncovered about the event (that had to be magic) that sealed them off. And then everyone just moves on because other things are happening. It still feels like there’s a lot beneath the surface, but the story stays tightly focused on its one main point which causes some potentially interesting sidequests to get ignored.

That said, it’s still a very simple story at heart, even though Abisina grants more complexity than I usually see when writers are dealing with this topic. If you like stories about prejudice, this one is well done. For myself, I’d rather have more action-adventure. I rate this book Neutral.

Necromancing the Stone (Necromancer #2)

Title: Necromancing the Stone

Author: Lish McBride

Series: Necromancer #2

Sam is—well, not settling, more like resigned—to his new role as Council member, keeper of Douglas’s house, and necromancer. Basically, surviving Douglas means taking his place. Which Sam is not overly keen about. But he’s going to give it his best shot, even if his life has gotten exceptionally weird. Then someone dies, and he realizes that his hard times are only just beginning . . .

This takes place six weeks after Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. Sam hasn’t really settled into his powers yet, but he’s mostly healed up from the beating he took in the previous book. He’s still working out the aftermath, though. Having all of Douglas’s things around him all the time doesn’t exactly help: he now lives in the house where he was once held prisoner. And he inherited James, a shapeshifting pukis who takes care of the house, as well as the army of gnomes, statues, and hedges Douglas had in his yard. That would be hard enough even without the guilt he feels over his best friend Ramon having turned into a were-bear during his rescue, or Brooke being outright murdered (she now hangs around as a spiritual mentor, though). Or struggling with the fact that he killed Douglas himself.

There are still plenty of hijinks, but this book is more internally focused as Sam works out all of the above, and what it is for him to grow up. What kind of a man is he going to become? What kind of a necromancer? And by the end he’s still only a bit farther on that path, but he’s laid a few things to rest (one, literally).

I really liked the focus on James, too. The shapeshifter is, as Sam puts it, passive-aggressive when he isn’t aggressive-aggressive, but Sam continues to try to build bridges and make this more of a friendship and less of a servant relationship. At the end, it’s James who takes center stage, and his fate is the one hanging in the balance most of all.

I felt like the villain was less strong this time around. In the first book, Douglas was both an immediate and impending threat. In this book, the villain spends more time remembering, dreaming, planning, which gives good insight into his backstory and character, but less of a sense of immediate threat, or even future threat. And the pieces for the end are put in play fairly early, so the reader can make an educated guess about where it’s all going not very far in (unlike the first book, where Brooke demonstrates rather graphically that you have no idea what’s going to happen next).

But even with that, I really liked the book. I like how Sam’s main character trait is compassion, and how he brings people together into friendships and families. I like how he turns around the stereotypes Douglas tends to embody about necromancers, and how even if he can be something of a whiner, he steps up to what he knows has to be done.

This appears to be the last book (for now) in the series, but I hope there will be many more to come. I’d love to see Sam exercise more of his potential, how Brid works things out with the pack, how various friends old and new change and grow. I rate this book Recommended.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Necromancer #1)

Title: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Author: Lish McBride

Sam is a college dropout with a job at a fast food joint in Seattle. Then he runs into Douglas Montgomery, a rich and utterly ruthless man who seems convinced Sam is, like himself, a necromancer. Sam has one week to agree to be Douglas’s apprentice or Sam and everyone he loves will become targets.

I suppose I thought this was going to be a romance-focused paranormal, which is why I initially overlooked it. Big mistake.

Sam is wry, funny, and interacts with friends just as zany as he is. From the opening scene at work, where he and the other longer-term employees are trying to dispirit the new guy to the final lines of the book I hardly stopped laughing. The constant humor highlights the grim situation Sam finds himself in, but even the worst situations stillĀ  turn out funny, or have a lot of laughs along the way. As he puts it, “I guess life-threatening situations bring out my inner smart-ass.”

The narrative switches between first-person for Sam and third-person to follow other characters. This works well, and allows for a much deeper look into Douglas’s thoughts or Brid’s situation before Sam runs into her. And the chapter titles are drawn from song lyrics, which gives an amusing soundtrack to the events of the book (at least for those songs I could identify, which was most of them).

I also liked the way the world is set up. The powers of a necromancer include the obvious, of course, but they aren’t only so narrowly defined. And Sam is just scratching the surface of what he’s able to do now. Nor is Sam the only unusual person in Seattle. We have the expected vampires and werewolves and witches, but also satyrs and bits of Faerie. None of which tend to like necromancers very much.

I stayed up too late reading this, because I couldn’t put it down. And I was laughing too hard to want to stop. I hope there are many, many more adventures in this world, because the ending implies it’s only getting crazier from here on out. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Seeker (Seeker #1)

Title: Seeker

Author: Arwen Elys Dayton

Series: Seeker #1

Quin has been training to be a Seeker her whole life. She dreams of the good she’ll be able to do when she finally claims that designation for her own. But the night she’s sworn in, she learns the truth. And what was once a treasured dream is now a nightmare. Now she has to decide what to do, whom to trust—and how she’ll live with herself.

Aside from a confusing setting that’s probably a short ways into the future (never specified, but given that there are aircars, it’s certainly not here), this starts strong and keeps going. Quin is idealistic and weak-willed (a product of her overly-controlling father), but she’s got her heart in the right place. It just takes her a long time to summon the strength to act out of that and not habit or fear.

I didn’t like how Shinobu failed, and fell, but I was glad that by the end he’s realized what’s important and gets back on his feet. He, like Quin, suffers from a lack of determination, and like Quin tries to run away any way he can from the reality he doesn’t want to confront.

Although I felt like those were plausible responses, they were also annoying coming from two warriors. Theoretically all three kids have trained for much of their lives, but Quin and Shinobu don’t act like it for a good chunk of the book. They both break with discipline.

John, though, was a lot more fun. He’s the failure, but his focus never wavers. His inching down a slippery slope is obvious even to himself, but he’s too caught up in what he wants and has planned to try to find a different way. And really, when Briac (Quin’s father and a total monster) has the ability to come after him and kill him just about whenever he wants, John’s course makes a lot of sense.

I liked the Dreads the most, though, especially Maud. The bits of her backstory are intriguing. She’s unpredictable and very powerful, and can be mistaken as mentally deficient because she has a much different way of thinking.

The powers were less impressive than I had initially hoped (except for the Dreads). Having some great place of potential like There and only using it as a travel shortcut feels like it ought to be selling the place short. So I hope future volumes expand on this. (And props to the Brian Greene quote at the beginning!)

Overall I can see where people wouldn’t care for this, due to such a large part of the plot being Quin and Shinobu deliberately trying to erase themselves, but personally I enjoyed it. I rate this book Recommended.

The Book of Wonders

Title: The Book of Wonders

Author: Jasmine Richards

Zardi is a dreamer, dreaming of adventure and magic in a kingdom that does its best to stifle both. The sultan of Arribitha hates magic, and his subjects live in fear of his cruelty. But when Zardi’s sister is taken to be the sultan’s prisoner (which always ends in execution for the maiden in question), Zardi is determined to save her. Together with Rhidan, a strange orphan who has grown up with her family, she sets off to find something or someone strong enough to topple the sultan and save her sister.

I’m on the fence about this one. The parts I liked I tended to like a lot, but the rest of the book left me feeling rather meh. Rhidan’s arc interested me more than Zardi’s. He’s always looked extremely different from everyone around him (white hair and purple eyes being your first clue he’s not going to be normal), and he’s desperate to find out where he came from and what it means that he was abandoned with nothing more than an amulet and his name. And as the mystery unfolds, he’s still got more questions than answers. He appears to be a sorcerer, but in the end he’s got to rely more on his own wits and his friendship with Zardi to get anything important done.

Zardi’s side is more straightforward: her sister has been taken to be the sultan’s prisoner, and will be executed after she has fulfilled her 90-day term. She sets off to find something that can help her free her sister (and depose the sultan too, if she can manage it). Despite her name being Scheherazade, this isn’t a retelling of the storyteller. This is actually a retelling of one of the voyages of Sinbad, although in a somewhat condensed and altered form. Zardi’s interruptions at the beginning put me off her character for a long ways into the book, but by the end I liked her better.

The story reads like an odd blend of Arabic and Greek mythos mashed together. Perhaps because Sinbad borrows a lot from some Greek tales anyway. The Cyclops, as best I can tell, seems to be a Greek addition. I do like the Rocs. More gigantic intelligent birds, please (and there are hints Zardi hasn’t seen the last of them). But some things were just far too obvious, even if they were likely part of the original (eg, the password to open the door). And the jinni near the end made everything rather cheap, because despite her warning that her magic has limits, she grants an awful lot of wishes for not much reason. I would have preferred her to set a hard limit on what she was willing to do, in exchange for setting her free (three wishes, one wish apiece, something like that).

This leaves off resolving a few things (mostly for Zardi) and opening up for the next adventure. It took me a while to get into things, but once I did I enjoyed the ride. I rate this book Recommended.

Otherkin (Otherkin #1)

Title: Otherkin

Author: Nina Berry

Series: Otherkin #1

Dez is used to making her own way through life. Scoliosis has put her in a brace, but she’s managed to be pretty normal despite that. Then she turns into a tiger, wakes up in a cage, rescues a boy . . . Life is about to get very, very different. Now she’s learning to be a shifter with others like her, but those who took her once still want to see her dead.

I liked some things about this a lot. Dez’s struggles with how she sees herself, particularly in light of her scoliosis, give her some good depth. She refuses to play the victim. And I liked the nuance to her strength and will—what helps her is also, at times, what limits her.

The other shifters were also a lot of fun. From a geeky opera wanna-be to the punk who can’t manage to keep a tattoo (since shifting erases all damage), Dez’s new companions are unique and fun. It’s disappointing the shifters are limited to just five groups, but at least they are groups and not single breeds. For example, the cat shifters includes both tiger and lynx. And I liked the different ways each of them has to shift. You can see a pattern, but also the individuality.

I’m personally not that fond of hot-boy-instant-love stories, so I mostly skimmed the bits with Caleb. I like him as a character, though his tragic backstory and big secret were not exactly surprises. But I like his potential, his power, and where he might be going next.

But there were also things that made me roll my eyes. Setting up the villains as an organization of fanatics who wants to exterminate the shapeshifters (while being hypocritical about using what abilities are useful to them), fine. No problems there. But the motive is so weak! They hate shifters, because God. They mouth some cheap rhetoric and throw the word God on the end and suddenly it’s a religious thing and we don’t need to explain any further. Oh, and Dez’s mom is a Wiccan who is good, even though nothing in the story really shows her being a Wiccan, other than saying Goddess once or twice. So it’s just really flat characterization that relies on very old and tired tropes. The shifters get a good amount of complexity, but the villains are clowns, right down to marrying off a young teenage girl to an ugly old man, because this will purify her.

So I enjoyed the shifters, and I might keep going with the series, but it was disappointing to have such stock bad guys, who are either too cartoony to take seriously or just cannon fodder. I rate this book Neutral.

Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth (PS4/Vita)

Virtual reality has progressed to the point where the virtual world of Eden is as important to people as the real world. Your player-created character receives a special invitation for a prize, but things go horribly wrong, leaving you trapped inside a virtual body that’s somehow in the real world. Now a detective, your job is to take up various cases, with the ultimate goal of solving the mystery of what happened to you.

Story: Cyber Sleuth takes the Digimon franchise and wraps it up in a nice RPG. For the most part, the big-picture story is pretty good, if a little predictable to anyone who knows much about Digimon. I like Arata the best, mostly for his quips, like suggesting poison and a dagger is a romantic gift because it’s reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.

Some bits of the required story would be better off as sidequests, though. For instance, the occult club adds nothing to the narrative but they have several quests that you can’t skip. And the timing of some of the really minor quests can interrupt some major happening, so they can introduce bad pacing to the narrative.

One other thing that really trips up the story is the translation. There are multiple instances of badly-formatted text, quiz answers that where the correct answer flags as wrong, and “Bakemon” shows up in the text (this is probably meant to be “bakemono” in Japanese, aka “monster”… there is no digimon named Bakemon so the text ends up confusing). I’m not sure how much the patches may have fixed as I only went through the game once, but there were definitely rough spots. The overall story was mostly okay, but those places tended to stand out.

Gameplay: This is a turn-based RPG whose main strategy revolves around which digimon you’re fielding and what abilities they have. As someone who never played any of the previous Digimon games, I found it very accessible, although I had to keep accessing the tutorial for type/affinity weaknesses to confirm what types/elements beat what.

Digimon is similar to Pokemon in that you can collect just about every monster you run across in the dungeons, but one of the key differences is that evolution is more flexible. Given enough time to go up and down evolution trees, anything can become virtually anything. This gives you a huge amount of freedom early-game to get a wide range of digimon. And two of the uglier and more useless digimon lines have really good passive abilities, like boosting EXP, money, or item drops. This can be compounded by items. I spent a fair amount of time save scumming early game to get Tactician USBs to ease the level-up process, but once I had them I was able to fill out most of the Field Guide very quickly (some of the highest-level digimon in particular are locked behind story events or later-game quests). This cuts down the grind tremendously, and there’s something addictive about putting in an hour or two of grinding when you can get multiple level 99 Megas out of it, starting from the lowest level Rookie.

That said, the game itself is pretty forgiving on Normal, and biased in favor of those digimon with defense/int-ignoring attacks, as those will typically do at least double the damage of another digimon who does have the correct type and element and is getting triple damage on its attacks. But if you have a favorite, the system is flexible enough that it will probably work for most fights, if it has the right abilities.

In terms of aesthetics, it’s more of a mixed bag. The graphics generally look good, although on the PS4 especially there are a lot of clues this was originally a Vita game. All the digital dungeons look like the same ramps copy/pasted into different configurations, and both dungeons and towns only offer a very limited area to wander.

The soundtrack is also generally good. A few of the tracks are used so often I got a bit tired of them, but for the most part I enjoyed the soundtrack.

Also, although I didn’t play it, there is an online versus mode for players who would rather pit their teams against other people (there are also AI opponents provided if the system has trouble finding a match).

Overall: If you like RPGs or monster-collecting games, this is a good one to check out. It’s much easier to collect them all than Pokemon (although the medals exist to drive completionists insane). I finished all quests and had a full Field Guide at 83 hours, although the real number is probably a bit higher given the amount of save scumming I did for a few farm goods. I’m not sure this one has as much replayability as other RPGs I’ve enjoyed, but the ability to carry forward the most important things means a New Game+ would go a lot faster if I did. And the online battling could be a draw for players looking for something to do after the main story. I rate this game Recommended.

The Wednesdays

Title: The Wednesdays

Author: Julie Bourbeau

Max lives in a small village with one peculiar rule: nobody goes outside on Wednesdays. The villagers have long since figured out Wednesdays are prone to accidents and disasters, and everyone shuts themselves up for that one day a week in the hopes of warding them off. But Max is a curious child, and hates being trapped indoors for an entire day. When he goes exploring outside on a Wednesdays, he soon finds more than he expected . . .

This is actually more a horror story than a fantasy. A supernatural evil with its own peculiar set of rules terrorizes a small town, and an ordinary boy finds himself snared in the middle of it. If he can’t figure out the mystery in time, the supernatural evil will claim him. Sounds like horror to me.

That said, the story has a unique take on such a well-trod path. In this case the evil is Wednesdays. (Ironically, since this happened to be next on my pile, I did read it on a Wednesday, which added to the amusement greatly.) Max is at first convinced it’s all superstition, but he has a surprising amount of trouble when he is outdoors, so he continues to hunt for answers.

Overall this is a quick read that isn’t too scary, and kids are likely to enjoy the variety of crazy accidents Max stumbles into. I rate this book Recommended.