Monthly Archives: October 2017

Azrael’s Twins (Nearworld Tales #1)

Title: Azrael’s Twins

Author: V.J. Mortimer

Series: Nearworld Tales #1

Niamh and Grady O’Connell never expected to find out that their parents are magic-users from another world slightly offset from our own. Or that they have powers too, and an evil sorcerer is after them. With the help of a phoenix, a unicorn, dragons, and more, their lives are about to change entirely. On the other hand, school is still school, parents are parents, and sometimes things can feel a bit TOO normal . . .

I have very mixed feelings about this. I started reading for the promise of a phoenix, and because I generally like portal fantasies (all the more so because in this case, the whole family is involved and not just the kids). And I do really like the phoenix, though the dragons are mostly treated like slightly smarter horses. The magic system is messy, but not the worst I’ve read, and it supports the story well enough. The characters are generally decent, with a few more unique angles, like the were-setter.

The main problems I had were that the story gets sloppy in a couple of places, and extremely derivative in others.

First, the sloppiness. Niamh and Grady have lots and lots and lots of magic, but no training at all, and unsurprisingly find themselves having a hard time actually using it once in this wonderful new world. There’s specifically some kind of block on their powers . . . but this seems to equal not wanting it badly enough, and once given enough incentive, they unleash their full potential. This was extremely unsatisfying. The plot had been hinting it might have something to do with the fact that both kids were born in the world of deep magic (and it also feels like cheating that being born on normal-Earth qualifies you for both magics, but magic-Earth only qualifies you for normal magic). In the end, though, it’s just “try harder.” And it’s really hard to gauge what any magic user is capable of because the most we get in the sense of limits is simply elemental, but then a number of spells like transformations don’t exactly seem limited to a particular element.

Second, the derivative nature of a few key components. To be honest, the iWands almost made me quit the book. We have an obvious Apple clone, from the way the wands are named, to the way they look, to how they’re sold in stores, and even an app market. Why? Why can’t there be something magic-specific (even if it is a particular type of wand)? Why would an alternate-Earth reflect that kind of product placement when those wands are basically the only thing that does?

The school portion is obviously going to remind people of Harry Potter, and the prose makes a few digs at that (including, amusingly, a conversation about why they’re still learning ordinary subjects and not magic-specific ones). Why NOT magic classes, though, even though there’s no reason for it to be the whole curriculum? And the allowances for the “games” done over breaks and lunch is frankly crazy and I’m amazed no one’s getting killed. No one bothers to protect students like Grady who can’t defend himself, and the one instance that pushed things too far relied more on the students not seriously wanting to kill each other to work out. These aren’t little spells—people are getting transformed. So why the lack of adult interest?

And why broomsticks? Why are we once again shown someone who gets a handcrafted, high-qualify broom that’s the envy of every other kid in the school? It’s almost forgivable because their parents are royalty, and therefore rich enough to afford it, but still, it’s going to draw even more parallels to the famous boy wizard this story is trying (mostly) not to emulate. No one has bothered finding something more comfortable than a stick between your legs in the supposedly modern era in which they live? There’s no technical reason presented for why it has to be broomsticks and not a flying car, or a surfboard, or something that might actually be better suited for riding. I get that broomsticks are traditional, but if we’re going with an iPhone clone for a wand, why wouldn’t the transportation be a bit nicer?

Anyway, I could go on, but the characters aren’t particularly noteworthy, and the setting and plot are full of holes. Some people may have less trouble with the things that bothered me, but I don’t intend to go on. I rate this book Neutral.

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Legacy of the Devil Queen (Eve of Redemption #4)

Title: Legacy of the Devil Queen

Author: Joe Jackson

Series: Eve of Redemption #4

Kari has a million things to do, but she’s going to have to learn to delegate. Pregnancy keeps her bound to a more local, administrative job for now, which is irritating because something is razing small villages and leaving no survivors. So the Silver Blades must go to figure out what kind of creature is responsible, while Kari handles trying to root out whoever is leaking the Order’s plans and secrets to outsiders. Because if she can’t find the traitor, the demon kings have an even greater advantage. . .

This is mostly split between two storylines, and both are strong. The Silver Blades have what seems to be a straightforward mission, except the demon—is it a demon?–they’re hunting is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. And it’s capable of killing highly trained warriors before they can even strike a blow in return, which presents some complications to the usual strategies.

In addition, Erik’s father is finally back in the picture. No one’s ever said before why his parents split apart, but now we have some of the reason, and the fumbling attempts at reconciliation.

I also loved the followup on various things from previous books, whether it was the situation with the brys or how Ty can find new purpose after his devastating injuries. Kari’s actions resonate in ways no one could have expected.

And I’m thrilled that werewolves play into the ongoing plot. They’re an intriguing addition and I hope to see a lot more of them as this tentative alliance deepens.

The humor is also on point. Some favorite bits:

“Should be just like old times,” Aeligos said. “Hi, you two! We’re headed into a possible war; would you like to join us? It’ll build character!”

Or watching Erik’s reaction to a certain mayor was also comedy gold (and Kari’s letter about it is just as funny).

Or the werewolves:
“Thank God for that,” Gil said. “I’m terrible with keeping track of titles, proper forms of address, and all that. Out in the wilds, we have three titles: friend, foe, and prey. And the last is only for food animals.”

Overall this is another strong installment in an excellent series. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Serpents Rising (Eve of Redemption #3)

Title: Serpents Rising

Author: Joe Jackson

Series: Eve of Redemption #3

Karian Vanador has spent her life hunting demons–but the more she’s learned about her Order’s involvement with the syrinthians, the more she’s convinced they don’t know enough about the foes they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. Eli told her of a promise made to the syrinthain high priestess to go to the underworld to rescue her daughter, a promise still unfulfilled. Kari intends to honor it. If, that is, she can figure out a way to get to the underworld, find the one person she’s looking for, and get back without getting killed. Fighting demons is one thing, but invading their own territory is quite another . . .

This picks immediately after White Serpent, Black Dragon. Kari’s still reeling from everything that happened, but that’s part of what fuels her determination to honor the promise made to a dying woman to rescue her daughter. The Order just doesn’t know enough about the demons to be anything more than a stopgap. Kari is determined to change that. People can go and come back from the underworld, even a demonhunter, so it has to be possible.

It takes a while to get into the actual underworld, but it doesn’t feel slow to me. Kari is appropriately cautious about the whole endeavor. She’s aware not only of how much she’s risking but also how much she stands to gain. And even researching how to get there provides a lot of fascinating information. For example, this isn’t going to be a stereotypical fire-and-brimstone underworld, or something in a big underground cave system.

I liked how the plot keeps twisting around. Getting a syrinthian girl away from a demon king that Kari has already offended won’t be easy. Kari’s got a different group of companions yet again. Some, like Uldriana, keep her guessing. Uldriana in particular became a favorite not just of this book but of the entire series. She has such a big impact, and such inner strength. I like how these characters feel so real, so well-defined, so that when the surprises come up I’m laughing or crying along with the rest of them.

I can’t really talk about my favorite parts without spoiling something crucial, so I’ll just say this was an amazing book and possibly my favorite of the series so far (it’s only hard to choose because they’ve all been really good). I rate this book Highly Recommended.

White Serpent, Black Dragon (Eve of Redemption #2)

Title: White Serpent, Black Dragon

Author: Joe Jackson

Series: Eve of Redemption #2

A serial killer is stalking the streets of Barcon, and the Order has been approached for help by none other than Kaelin Black, Barcon’s infamous Earl. Since the killings might be demonic in origin, Karian goes to investigate. But nothing about this case is simple. What is going on with the Lord Black? Is he innocent, as he claims, of the long list of crimes everyone suspects of him? What has the Order–and its last Avatar of Vengeance–been doing behind everyone’s backs?
And what do the demons stand to gain from this killing spree?

Set three years after the end of the first book, this one finds Karian in a much different place. Now married and a mother, she’s taken on a more administrative job to allow her to fulfill those roles more effectively. But a complicated problem calls for a high-ranking hunter, and it doesn’t take long for Karian to get back to her original job.

This, like the first book, isn’t as black-and-white as things first appear. Karian has to reevaluate her own beliefs often, and her initial disdain of the previous Avatar of Vengeance’s underhand methods comes against the fact that the real world isn’t nearly as simple as she thought. The mystery has a number of surprising twists, too, and it will take more than just Karian to untangle it.

I liked the fact that Kari’s healing from her childhood abuse is an ongoing thing. One piece that worried me about the first book’s resolution to that was that it felt like a one-and-done event, when she’s had years of trauma. Thankfully, that was more of a turning point than a total healing. Kari still struggles, but she’s moved past the place where it owns her. I also liked that she finds unexpected common ground in this with someone else, and how it helps the both of them to be able to support each other.

I also like that we’re getting introduced to more people outside the Order. And I REALLY like that there are so many different kinds of people, animals, and monsters that show up…. gnolls, werewolves, griffons, to name a few of my favorites. Or, as Eli puts it:

“So we’ve got assassins, demons, necromancers, and werewolves all involved here,” Eli said. He and Kari were headed toward the graveyard to see if they could find any other clues about whether the necromancer might be mixed up with the succubus. “Now we just need a vampire to show up, and we’ll have a nice little miniature apocalypse.”

All in all, this is a great continuation of an excellent first book. Start with Salvation’s Dawn, but definitely read this one next! I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Salvation’s Dawn (Eve of Redemption #1)

Title: Salvation’s Dawn

Author: Joe Jackson

Series: Eve of Redemption #1

Karian Vanador has the dubious distinction of being the only known case of anyone being resurrected. In her former life, she was a renowned demonhunter, but in the current one, a massive war everyone calls the Apocalypse sidetracked everyone for the last eight years. Now, with no war to distract her from contemplating another lifetime alone, she’s tired. But just because the war’s over doesn’t mean the demons are through, and it isn’t long before Kari is sent out on yet another mission. This time, she’s got partners in a group called the Silver Blades—half-demon demonhunters. It’s up to the few of them to investigate rumors of a civil war, and do anything they can to stop it. . .

This was fascinating. There’s so much backstory that I read the sample, then looked for some prequel series that surely had to exist. Who starts a story AFTER the main character has already lived (and died), and then finished out a world-altering war? But this level of detail is actually characteristic of the book. Nations, races, languages, historical events, various gods, and more all have a lot of depth. The various information might seem slow to some, but I found it all naturally building up not just a few characters but an entire world.

The characters that populate this world are equally strong. Karian isn’t human, though humans exist (and amusingly enough, are hinted to come from somewhere beyond the stars, thus adding a nice bit of sci-fi to an otherwise solidly fantasy plot). The various humanoid races include Karian’s own draconic race, the rir, which is itself split into several sub-races (and if this is confusing, there IS an appendix that helpfully lays things out at the back of the book). Karian is also a fascinating person. Her prowess as a demonhunter was a result of her personality, drive, and the knowledge she was already dying from a terminal illness, which made her much more willing to walk headlong into danger.

I also particularly like Karian’s Order, who serves a deity whose motto is “Love justice, but do mercy.” Not exactly what you might expect from a god dedicated to wiping out the demon scourge. Karian embodies much of this apparent contradiction: a deadly warrior who hasn’t closed off her heart, and whose compassion tends to get her more involved with the suffering than some of the other hunters.

The Silver Blades are another interesting wrinkle. They’re a tight-knit group of siblings with a wide variety of skills, and they aren’t sure what to make of Karian. Some flat-out refuse to believe Karian is THE Karian Vanador. Others do but don’t know what to do about working with a living legend. And while Karian is adaptable, some of them are less so.

The plot kept throwing one surprise after the next. I liked the layers of mystery, and the various things going on around the possible war. It was also a lot of fun to see Karian changing her perceptions bit by bit, as her longstanding beliefs are challenged by the people she meets.

Honestly, the only thing that I wanted to see differently was to have the nameless female in the prologue get a name in the prologue. It’s not like it matters since she’s not actually mentioned by name until much later anyway.

Overall this was an excellent read. The world, the characters, and the plot are all very strong, and I look forward to future books. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

City of Gods II: Horsemen (City of Gods #2)

Title: City of Gods II: Horsemen

Author: Jonathan Maas

Series: City of Gods #2

The Horsemen have learned much during their time at the Academy, but now they have to face final exams. True to form, the exams aren’t easy—and some of them require involving themselves in the outside world. And after, everyone is split up as they’re sent on their first real missions . . .

I still think this is better as “kids with powers” than Horsemen specifically, the little nod to a vision of horses notwithstanding. That said, it’s still an interesting world, and each of the kids gets a lot of opportunity to develop.

In some ways this feels like a novella about the final exams, followed by the first half of a book about their first missions. That’s not a bad thing—both stories rotate between all four Horsemen and the split means things can go in several directions. One of the missions, for example, is directly built on an exam.

I like that Gunnar’s challenge is more about leadership, because he’s not really used to working with others still, much less the people who actually end up by his side. And I liked that Rowan isn’t quite as one-dimensional as he’s seemed (I usually love berserkers, but Rowan being an arrogant bully cancelled that out). I liked that Saoirse picked up the biggest incongruity about the minotaurs and is clever in playing to her strengths. I liked that Kayana gets challenged over her sociopathic tendencies, because Tommy and Cassander show her she may be extremely intelligent but she’s operating from a bad set of assumptions about humanity. And Tommy not only has a chance to be more of a leader himself, he’s got hints about the shape of his destiny that intrigue me.

Some of the characters felt a bit weaker, though. Cassander sometimes comes across as less of a character and more of a mouthpiece, and I dearly hope Kayana’s “overpopulation is the problem” confronts the reality that people can be jerks just fine even if they have all their material needs met.

Overall, though, this is still a really unique setting that I’m enjoying a lot. It’s fun to see Apaches and Celts and Spartans and Amazons and so much more all vying for attention. There’s enough tech to be a light sci-fi while of course the gods provide a lot of magic. I rate this book Recommended.

City of Gods: Hellenica (City of Gods #1)

Title: City of Gods: Hellenica

Author: Jonathan Maas

Series: City of Gods #1

In a world where gods and mortals squabble over a constantly changing set of countries, Hellenica has dared to try something different. They have chosen 16 different beings with their various powers to train as peacemakers. People who might be able to change the status quo. Of those, the wildcards are the four Horsemen, whose powers no one fully understands and whose destiny points towards great things . . .

I’ll be honest—I really enjoyed this as a story about kids with powers, but I think the kids with powers shouldn’t have been associated with the Horsemen. For one, the White Knight doesn’t appear to be Conquest, but reminds me more of the rider from Revelation 19:11-16, which has imagery depicting someone with powerful speech. Also Pestilence is used here, which has a very interesting set of powers but doesn’t technically seem to jibe with the descriptions of Revelation 6:1-8, which reads more like Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. The only reason this MATTERS to me is because we are talking about various gods and legends, and by and large everyone else fits pretty well into their source material (I was highly amused to see Dagon show up. Talk about obscure deities).

That’s also what trips me up on some of the other details. We have Horsemen, who are part of Christian doctrine, but they have no horses. They don’t even seem aware of the existence of God, with the possible exception of Tommy, but there’s no indication Tommy actually BELIEVES in the faith of his hospital. Saoirse even worships a completely different goddess. They not only don’t have horses, there seems to be no need or desire for them. So again, this really works well as kids with powers, but I have a ton of trouble buying these are actually the Horsemen. I don’t really care that two of them got gender-flipped to female to provide a balanced team. The other things bugged me more.

Once I decided to pretend these weren’t actually the Horsemen but rather just a bunch of kids with interesting powers, I could enjoy the rest of the story a lot more. There’s a good mix of personalities as well as powers. Tommy’s kind and caring nature is at odds with the fact that he’s basically a walking vector for every disease known to man (and probably will accidentally invent new ones if that’s what it takes to infect someone). Kayana is highly intelligent but absolutely clueless about the workings of normal humanity and tends to view things in a very black-and-white manner. Saoirse has very ill-defined powers, but being raised as a high-class prostitute has left her attentive to the subtleties of humanity, and she prefers to avoid conflict and seek to talk her way out of problems. Gunnar feels like he got the short end of the stick. He’s Spartan, raised in a culture of war, and a pit fighter—but apart from a few glossed over fights at the start most of his matches do little to highlight any unusual skill or any kind of power. I was particularly miffed at the bout with the Amazon near the end. They don’t have any divine power, and he should, so why couldn’t it have turned out a bit differently?

Gunnar’s the one I hope develops the most, as nothing he’s really done so far has hinted at him being anything different than a Spartan, except the mystery of what he did with his rite for adulthood that has cast him out of Spartan society.

Overall I did enjoy this. It was fun to see so many different cultures and gods represented, even though the story mostly picks a few varied examples rather than try to handle absolutely everything. The friendship between the four main characters is growing, and if this book is any indication the story will continue to unfold in unexpected ways. I rate this book Recommended.

(And if you want a less ambiguous take on the Horsemen, I highly recommend Riders, by Veronica Rossi.)