Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Morena-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 25, 2016

Summary: Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eeking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review: I like vampires. I’ve had a weird obsession with them since I was around 7 years old. But I don’t like a lot of vampire fiction that I’ve encountered recently, because so much of it follows the same paranormal-romance formula, or else portrays vampires in a way that just really doesn’t work with what I want to read. It’s a matter of personal taste, obviously, because what doesn’t work for me apparently works wonders for hundreds of others, but it does mean that I tend to get quickly burned out on vampire fiction when I dare to pick up a new novel.

However, Certain Dark Things was an incredible and refreshing surprise, showing me uncommon aspects of vampire lore across different cultures and presenting blood-drinkers as more than just dark tortured broody souls waiting for a vivacious woman to show them how wonderful unlife can be when they’re not spending it alone. The different vampires in Moreno-Garcia’s novel are reminiscent of ones from White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade, at least in the sense of  having different clans and offshoots, each with different abilities, weaknesses, strengths, and heritage. And that, to me, made them seem real, well-established, like I could be looking into a hidden part of the real world because culture matters and myths matter and honestly, taking into account that so many cultures have vampiric legends in them just makes sense. It gives you a solid foundation to build upon, and weirdly works to give mostly-Western audiences something they may not have even encountered before, making them old look new and fresh.

Though the book has multiple different viewpoints, the story is primarily about Atl, a vampire with Aztec heritage, who is on the run after her family was murdered. She encounters Domingo, who becomes enamoured of her, and wants to help her despite the danger this puts him in. Chasing Atl is Nick, member of the clan that killed Atl’s family, out to finish the job and torture Atl just for kicks. On the other side is Ana, a cop trying to stand against the corruption in the system, trying to keep her city clear of the vampires who have raised their heads, and falling in with gangs in order to do it. But for all the different characters, everything swirls around and centres on Atl; it’s all about her. Domingo’s fixation on her, Rodrigo’s attempt to track her down, Nick’s violent obsession, Ana’s attempts to find both her and Nick before more damage can be done. It wasn’t merely a case of converging storylines; without Atl, there would be no story.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. For all that the story spins itself out around Atl, the other characters who take the spotlight feel fully realized, capable of carrying on their own stories even if Atl’s wasn’t the focus. Ana’s story of trying to keep her cool on a police force full of people who don’t take her seriously, trying to raise her daughter to have options and opportunities in life even when Ana herself has to go without, would be a compelling enough story even if you didn’t bring vampires into it. Ditto for Domingo; he felt like a real person, with passions and interests and problems beyond just what you see for the brief time during which the book takes place. You read Certain Dark Things and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into the lives of real people who go beyond the book’s pages, and they suck you in and keep a tight hold on you as their stories unfold.

I could read books like this forever. In fact, reading Certain Dark Things has made me want to track down more of Moreno-Garcia’s writing so that I can wrap myself in that evocative prose again. She weaves a wonderful story, full of rich detail and incredible characters that you want to read about even if you hate. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not reading her work sooner.

This book made me love vampires again. And that’s no small feat given that I’ve become so jaded in recent years, more than half convinced that I’d never find vampire stories that appealed to me ever again. But here it is in all its dark violent glory, exactly what I’d been craving for so long. It took me to new locales and let me look into a culture I’ve only ever really seen in travel guides, dropped me right into the streets and let me look at the good and the bad in equal measure. Certain Dark Things pressed all the right buttons for me, and I know it’ll be one that I read again, whenever I need to refresh my lifelong love of bloodsucking fiends. If you’re a fan of vampires, or just enjoy different perspectives on common themes, or hell, if you just love some dark gritty fiction that happens to involve the undead, then you need to read this book. You won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Paternus, by Dyrk Ashton

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Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2016

Summary: Gods, monsters, angels, devils. Call them what you like. They exist. The epic battles between titans, giants, and gods, heaven and hell, the forces of light and darkness. They happened. And the war isn’t over.

17 year old Fi Patterson lives with her stuffy English uncle and has an internship at a local hospital for the aged. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, misses her dead mother, wonders about the father she never knew. One bright spot is caring for Peter, a dementia-ridden old man whose faraway smile can make her whole day. And there’s her conflicted attraction to Zeke — awkward, brilliant, talented — who plays guitar for the old folks. Then a group of very strange and frightening men show up for a “visit”…

Fi and Zeke’s worlds are shattered as their typical everyday concerns are suddenly replaced by the immediate need to stay alive — and they try to come to grips with the unimaginable reality of the Firstborn.

“Keep an open mind. And forget everything you know…”

Review: Paternus has so many elements that I enjoy, particularly my love of stories that involve deities all over the place. No idea why that’s a thing I enjoy, but it is. And if you’re like me in that regard, well, you’ll probably have a grand old time with Paternus, because it has a mess of deities and mythology-mixing all over the place. It plays fast and loose with myths from many regions and religions, and what first looked like a complicated mess slowly ordered itself into a impressive array of twists that actually made sense.

And when you consider the scale of some of the things Paternus deals with, that’s something worth mentioning.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. The story primarily centres around Fi, a young woman working at a hospital, who seems to have a particular bond with a patient named Peter, who doesn’t really react to anyone except her. Life seems relatively normal, until the hospital is attacked by a group of extremely violent people — who are not exactly human — who are after Peter. Fi and Zeke (the guy Fi has a crush on) flee the hospital with Peter, who slowly seems to be coming to his senses and reacting to things around him, and the three of them have to stay alive long enough to figure out just what it is their pursuers want. Mixed in are chapters told from the perspective of gods or mythological figures, such as Tanuki, who see signs that the excrement if about to hit the rotating blades very soon, in what could be an epic battle of gods.

If that description thrills you, I can’t blame you. It was actually a bit difficult to come up with a brief teaser like that without spoiling a fair bit of what gets revealed in the book’s pages. Ashton juggles a lot of very complicated elements and brings them together into a seamless whole by the end, and what starts off as a chaotic beginning that throws you right into the deep end makes a whole lot more sense by the time you reach the final chapters. In that regard, it’s a book with decent re-read value. It would be good to go back and read it again with the knowledge I have now, to see which aspects make more sense now that I fully understand what’s happening. I have to give Ashton credit where credit is due; that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and I think it was done quite well.

Many of the problems I have with this book occur early on, and they’re small things, but they’re things that wouldn’t stop nagging at me. There are two that spring instantly to mind. 1) Fi’s gay coworker, who embodies gay stereotypes in an uncomfortable way, talking constantly about sex and being gossipy and hitting on every attractive guy and actually saying, “Ew,” multiple times during a conversation — which he himself started — in which breasts were mentioned. Given that he was the only explicitly gay character, this portrayal was awkward and uncomfortable to read. 2) The mention that Edgar, Fi’s prim-and-proper British uncle, pronounces potato as po-tah-to. In the “proper English manner.” I seriously kept waiting for the reveal that Edgar was just trolling Fi over that word, because seriously, no British person I have ever encountered pronounces it that way. And I am British. The whole “toMAYto/toMAHto poTAYto/poTAHto” thing is not meant to be taken as a serious representation of the differences between North American and British English.

See? Small things, none of which are particular relevant to the story, but they bugged me. I can’t say for certain, but to me they felt like Ashton was trying to write elements he wasn’t entirely familiar with, and they didn’t work well. Which is surprising because that goes against the sheer level of detail that goes into the rest of the work. Maybe that’s why those small things felt so jarring to me. They seemed out of place, and had greater impact due to context.

I also felt confused by the early presence of chapters talking about what was happening with other gods. Some made sense, and get revisited as the story goes on. The stuff with Tanuki and Arges, though? Gets a few chapters early on (usually during those chapters I was far more interested in getting back to what Fi was up to), and then dropped like a hot potahto for the vast majority of the book, only to be picked up again at the very end. And considering those chapters initial got equal page time with Fi’s chapters, they at first seemed a lot like unimportant filler, and ultimately pretty forgettable.

Other than that, the book’s biggest flaw is that it infodumps a lot. Which I didn’t mind so much, because it was infodumping about things I was legitimately interested in and hadn’t necessarily figured out for myself. And it made sense in context, too, as Fi and Zeke are encountering all of this world-shattering stuff for the first time and they needed it all explained to them. So I think in that regard it’s a flaw-that-isn’t, because while it’s a good rule of thumb to not infodump on your readers, there is a time and place for it every once in a while, especially in such a complicated situation where the characters are just as confused as the readers. Everybody needs to catch up.

Paternus has action by the barrel, and in that regard it’s a surprisingly quick read once you get into the meat of the story. I love the way mythology was toyed with. I love the idea of a primal being that may or may not be what we call God, that is capable of loving all things and creating some of the best and worst that the world could offer. I love the sheer level of detail that went into crafting the mythos, and I respect the work it must have taken to have it come together and make sense in the end. It’s not a perfect book, but it has a lot going for it, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. Ashton has a lot of skill as a writer and storyteller, and I look forward to seeing what else he might do in the future.

The Nature of a Pirate, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 6, 2016

Summary: The third novel in the Stormwrack series, following a young woman’s odyssey into a fantastical age-of-sail world
Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.

When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature—a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell—causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?

The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanner, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again.

Review: I’ve said before that I have yet to read anything by Dellamonica that I dislike. Her latest novel, The Nature of a Pirate, fits firmly into my expectations, and I think is the best of the series so far. It doesn’t quite have the magic that the first book held for me, the wondrous discovery of a new world, but the story really comes to a head, and this was a real page-turner and such an amazing read for me.

Sophie Hansa is firmly set on dragging Stormwrack into the age of curiosity, introducing greater scientific procedures into the world, at least in regard to forensics and crime-solving. She studies samples of animals and plants, trying to figure out this world that is slowly unfolding before her. Culture and politics, however, are still a lost art to her, and she makes plenty of missteps along her journey, but it’s the science of things she’s primarily interested in, the biology and forensics. So when she’s thrown into the middle of a mystery involving ships that bleed, forbidden magical constructs, and the possibility of it all leading to war, she goes to the task like any mildly obsessive and headstrong person would.

And I love reading Sophie for those traits. She’s in that excellent position to allow the reader a bit of ignorance and explanation, because Sophie herself isn’t familiar with Stormwrack in the way that those who have grown up there are. Cultural missteps are bound to happen. Lack of historical or legal context. That sort of thing. Sophie being from this world, called Erstwhile, has a distinctly modern approach to things, and that works well to ground the reader, making it easier to ride on Sophie’s shoulder as she encounters new things and sees them similarly to how we ourselves would, in all their baffling glory. And her penchant for brutal honesty, calling things how she sees them, is great to read.

I have great respect for the level of detail that Dellamonica put into this novel — the whole series, really, but here it just seemed so overwhelming to keep track of, from a writer’s perspective. Writing a secondary world is always a complicated affair when you’re trying to make it stand out from the crowd, and Dellamonica definitely succeeds in that regard. But it’s more than just an Age-of-Sail world. There are multiple nations, all with their cultural idiosyncrasies that are expressed and considered in the text. Not only that, but Sophie’s efforts to bring modern science into Stormwrack when Stormwrack doesn’t have facilities and technology that we consider modern means improvising, researching early breakthroughs in certain fields and recreating old methods and refining them along the way. Some of my favourite parts of the novel involve Sophie and Bram trying to figure Stormwrack out, and devise experiments and modifications to see how things work and what can be done. It’s creative, it’s impressive, and it speaks to a whole load of behind-the-scenes work that all comes together to create a breathtakingly detailed and realistic story.

Every time I write a review for these books, I find the story very difficult to describe. Not because it’s loose and all over the place. The writing’s tight, the direction clear, and it’s a thrill ride to be on with the characters. No, it’s hard to describe because there’s so much of it. Sophie’s project to introduce fingerprint records to Stormwrack. The frights that are destroying ships. Sophie’s ongoing issues with her birth father. The mystery behind a slave she suddenly owns. So many plot threads intertwine and play off each other, some important, some less so, some seeming unimportant until they zoom to the forefront halfway through the novel. Another point in Dellamonica’s favour; for all that the story has a lot of elements to juggle, not once does it get overwhelming of confusing, beyond the confusion you’re supposed to feel because characters themselves haven’t figured out exactly what’s going on either.

Stormwrack is a world I could constantly — if you’ll excuse the pun — dive into and never be bored reading about. I love the characters, from Sophie’s headstrong intelligence to Garland’s reserved politeness to Verena’s desire to prove herself. They’re whole people, able to stand on their own and tell their own stories. I love the cultures built in the flooded world. I love the little linguistic quirks that get thrown in, pieces of a puzzle to solve. Dellamonica is a fantastically skilled writer, at the top of her game, and I can’t imagine her coming down from those heights any time soon. Do yourself a favour and pick up this series soon if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely worth the time you’ll spend reading it.

 

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.

Fix, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 06, 2016

Summary: “America’s long sent its best SMASH agents overseas to deal with the European crisis. As of today, they decided dismantling your operation was more important than containing the Bastogne Broach. Now you’re dealing with the real professionals.”

Paul Tsabo: Bureaucromancer. Political activist. Loving father. His efforts to decriminalize magic have made him the government’s #1 enemy – and his fugitive existence has robbed his daughter of a normal life.

Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson: Videogamemancer. Gifted unearthly powers by a terrorist’s magic. Raised by a family of magicians, she’s the world’s loneliest teenager – because her powers might kill anyone she befriends.

The Unimancers: Brain-burned zombies. Former ‘mancers, tortured into becoming agents of the government’s anti-‘mancer squad. An unstoppable hive-mind.

When Paul accidentally opens up the first unsealed dimensional broach on American soil, the Unimancers lead his family in a cat-and-mouse pursuit all the way to the demon-haunted ruins of Europe – where Aliyah is slowly corrupted by the siren call of the Unimancers…

Review: When you read the books in this series back to back, you end up torn apart by the end, after the rollercoaster ride of emotions and tension and revelation. It took me a while, after finishing Fix, to pick myself up and put myself back together. The story is tight, the surprises keep coming, heartstrings keep getting tugged…

Dammit, Steinmetz, how do you keep doing this?!

Fix takes places years after the events in The Flux. Aliyah is now 13, and together with Paul, Imani, Valentine, and Robert, the group seek to find a place where Aliyah can be herself and be safe. Paul, especially, wants Aliyah to experience life as a typical American teenager, the joys and sadnesses that most people experience, instead of the constant battle against her magical inclinations.

But all doesn’t go according to plan when Aliyah gets carried away and accidentally does ‘mancy in front of her new friends, and the ensuing chaos causes a broach. SMASH and the Unimancers get into the mix, demanding that Paul give up and give himself over to them. Paul refuses, of course, because who would want their personality tortured away in order to become part of a vicious magic-hating hive mind? But when Aliyah finds herself bound to the Unimancers, the whole world flips on its head, and nothing — absolutely nothing — is what anybody thought it was.

Some books in a series, even final books, you can go into without having read the previous entries. This isn’t the case with Fix. Even if somebody explained the backstory to you, there’s so much you’d miss out on by skipping right to the end, so many subtleties and other assorted pieces that aren’t essential to understanding the story as a whole, but that add so much. You’d miss out entirely on the impact of the Valentine/Robert romantic subplot. You’d miss the terror of Paul’s decline, since you wouldn’t see just how he started out in the first place. Definitely a case where I’d say the ‘Mancer series is much more than the sum of its parts, and Fix is a glorious ending to the trilogy that’s open-ended enough to leave the possibility for more stories while still capping off the main storyline.

I wondered, at some parts, how many people would read Fix and cry out that it’s horrible because Steinmetz dared to even mention certain things. (“There’s a lesbian here; stop shoehorning gay people into my fiction!” “A trans character gets mentioned; ugh, that’s just terrible!” “You mentioned a functioning triad; you’re trying to bring down traditional marriage values!”). Aside from the fact that it’s good sometimes to even have a couple of throwaway lines that imply yes, people do come in all shapes and sizes and behaviours and flavours of being, claiming such things would entirely miss a huge point that gets brought up multiple times throughout Fix: there are multiple ways of doing things, no one way is absolutely right for everybody, and sometimes the best way to heal the world is to adapt to the new things that occur rather than trying to force it back to the old way. I can’t say for sure that Steinmetz was going for that kind of social commentary during the novel’s final scenes, but it’s certainly applicable, and I, for one, appreciate that.

It was interesting, in that regard, to see a different strategy evolve for taking care of broaches. Paul’s way worked initially, to convince the universe to follow the rules that kept it stable before, rules that Paul believed in even without knowing what those specific rules were because he believed in rules and order so very deeply. But that way only worked for him sometimes, and when confronted with a bigger change to the world — the European broach — there was need for a different strategy that involved adaptation rather than reform. That tied in well with the idea that one way of life, one way of thinking, didn’t always work for everyone, such as Aliyah finding her place within the Unimancers even when Paul didn’t like their way of doing things.

Overall, Fix takes a lot of preconceptions and gleefully tears them to shreds, scattering the confetti of old beliefs and daring characters to figure out what to do now. ‘Mancy forces the universe to bend to new rules, and now it’s like the universe is fighting back, not with broaches and the destruction of physical laws, but by taking mundane occurrences and forcing broken characters to adapt. How well do you handle it when your daughter falls in love with another girl? How do you cope when your partner regains emotional stability (and loses their ‘mancy) when you’re still proud of the way you’re so powerfully flawed? What do you do when you can’t protect those you love? Things that can happen to anyone, regardless of magical ability, regardless of time or place, but that can knock you for a loop regardless. Fix is a novel of push-and-pull, give-and-take, figuring out where you fit in the world, or whether you have to carve out your own place. Whether you’re Paul losing control over his life because you keep losing what you had, or whether you’re Aliyah finding out that you fit best in a place those who love you would never want you, or you’re an uncertain Valentine who needs to be needed, the world pushes back at you and sometimes you have to bend and sometimes you have to tell the universe no, this is where you are, and this is where you’re staying. Honestly, for all the heartache I felt while reading Fix, for all the times the subject matter hit extremely close to home in a painful way, it’s a very hopeful novel, because in the end what matters is the ability to adapt and find your place.

So do I recommend this series? Hell yes! To one and all! It’s a powerful story, a take on magic and obsession that crosses boundaries and paints new pictures of a reality that could have been and could yet be. It’s a brilliant piece of urban fantasy, and adventure that stays with you long after the last page has been read and the cover closed, and Steinmetz has done something great here. The characters are beautiful and flawed, the writing tight, the story fast-paced, the whole thing evocative and emotional. And I love it. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that doesn’t come along often, a diamond in the rough, and Fix was the best possible way to end it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 06, 2015

Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.

But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

Review: I was intrigued by the very concept of magic when I first read Flex. The idea that someone’s obsession can be so powerful, so focused, that it can warp the universe, essentially telling reality that no, I believe so strongly that this is how things should happen that indeed it does. That the consequences of rearranging the laws of reality like that is that reality can break down and extradimensional beings can break through and cause untold havoc. I can’t say it appealed to me in the sense of wanting to be a ‘mancer like that, but I can say that, as someone who has struggled with keeping their passions and interests in check so that others don’t get bored/intimidated/weirded out because I’m not being socially appropriate, I can at least say that I can relate a little to what it might be like for someone to have something they cling to that powerfully. And from there I was drawn in.

Last time, we saw Aliyah become the youngest ‘mancer in history. We saw Paul struggle desperately to shield his family from the danger of his ‘mancy, fail to hold his marriage together, defeat and survive any number of deadly issues. This time, in The Flux, we see Aliyah a little bit older, still conflicted about her ‘mancy, trying to make sense of the world that has created her and where she fits in it. Paul, for his part, uncovers a sort of safe haven for ‘mancers, but that safe haven comes at a price, and it’s one that Valentine, at least, doesn’t really want to pay even as Paul argues that it’s best for Aliyah’s sake. The King of New York has his own agenda, one that often intersects with Paul’s desires, and it’s plot twist after plot twist as the story unfolds and everybody suffers along the way.

Everything I liked about Flexis back in The Flux. Valentine is still a kick-ass awesome woman who doesn’t need to be model-thin to be that way, perfectly at home with her kinky sexual expression, a friend to Paul and mentor to Aliyah, and I love her to death because she’s the kind of character SFF needs more of. Paul is still a devoted father who doesn’t do things perfectly and makes frequent mistakes, but he tries to make amends and does what he thinks is best even when it’s a hard call. Aliyah goes through moment of being far too bratty and then far too insightful, but I also admit that’s what happens when you have a troubled kid who has plenty of evidence that the world really is out to get her, who has powers that are hard to control, and when the only person to give her what she wants is a psychopathic pyromancer. I’d be bratty myself, no matter what my age, if all that was heaped on me.

Steinmetz is very good at writing a believable reality that you fall into. Whether it’s through the little name-drops of brands to centre a reader on familiar things in the world, to characters that tug at your heartstrings (who didn’t feel emotion at reading Paul’s attempt to leave Aliyah for her own safety, or at the fate of K-Dash and Quaysean?), it all feels so very real. There’s more to realism than just a high level of detail and clear descriptions, and Steinmetz knows how to bring it all together to create a strong world that readers care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an urban fantasy that I want to share with people as much as the world that has ‘mancers in it.

Speaking of emotion, really, The Flux has it in spades. It’s an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end, mostly thanks to Aliyah’s development. Aliyah starts off with her continuing love/hate relationship for ‘mancy, which turns into disdain for those who can’t do ‘mancy and thus, to her mind, will never understand her and she won’t understand them, to being angry at her father for all the times he needs to be saved. But the real heartache for me was seeing Aliyah’s relationship to Imani, her mother. Aliyah craves her mother’s love and attention in the same way most young children do, but at the same time is truly afraid that if Imani discovers Aliyah is a ‘mancer, Imani will want to kill her. And given some thoughtless comments that Imani or David made in the past, her fear isn’t an overreaction. It’s heartbreaking to see that kind of conflict in anyone, let alone such a young child.

The story in The Flux feels like it’s got a bit of second-book syndrome. It is a complete story in its own right, a good continuation of the events in Flex, but it feels more like an interlude, the necessary setup and establishment for things that need to happen in the third book later. There was plenty of tension, great pacing, the snappy dialogue I love so much, but a lot of it felt like a book in which this character gets introduced, that realization occurs, to prop up a novel to come. This doesn’t make it a bad book — far from it! — but it does make it feel less important than the first novel, by far.

But I’m in love with the world that Steinmetz has created, and the characters within it, and the overarching story in this series so far is pulling me along at breakneck speed and I don’t want to stop. It’s a wonderfully creative take on magic, has a weird and varied cast of characters, and I can’t wait to dive into Fix to continue the story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger — she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world — until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess — and themselves — alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.

Review: Recommended to me by Sarah of Bookworm Blues as part of the Our Words book club, I expected that this book was going to be a good one. I didn’t expect that I’d get quite so addicted to it, however. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading, and I was constantly surprised and impressed by what kept happening on the pages.

Nolan experiences a rare type of seizure. Or at least, that’s what everyone, including his family and doctors, believe. In reality, whenever he closes his eyes, even for just the space of a blink, he sees into Amara’s world instead of the darkness behind his eyelids. To say that it’s a distraction is an understatement; Nolan gets sucked into Amara’s world so easily, and Amara’s life is such a part of his that he often finds himself closing his eyes and zoning out of his world so that he can better focus on hers. Amara, for most of her life, hasn’t even realized that Nolan can see through her eyes, and goes about her days keeping Cilla safe from the curse that plagues her. Cilla’s curse means that if even a drop of her blood is spilled, the world around her rebels and tries to kill her, seeking out that blood with a vengeance. Amara’s presence is necessary because she can heal, and so if accidents happen and blood is shed, Amara will smear Cilla’s blood on herself to distract the curse, allowing her body to be broken until the curse is satisfied, knowing that despite the agony she experiences, she, at least, will be able to put her body back together again.

But when Nolan discovers that his new medication allows him moments of control over Amara’s body, Amara becomes very much aware of Nolan’s presence, and just what that means for her and for Cilla.

Amara’s world at first to just be yet another generic fantasy world, only it quickly reveals itself to be pretty well-built and well-defined. There are multiple different cultures and subcultures portrayed, not just nationalities but social classes. Fine details like not signing or speaking aloud the names of the deceased, lest you attract their spirits and prevent them from resting, were touches that seem small and inconsequential on their own, but they add up to create a world that feels fleshed-out and real. And happily, the worldbuilding wasn’t done in the form of infodumping, but in casual mentions that leave it to the reader to pick up and understand. It may not have been the most  unique fantasy world I’ve ever encountered in books, but it was still complete and comprehensible, and that counts for a lot.

It’s no surprise that Duyvis’s book touches on the realities and implications of disabilities. Nolan’s perceived epilepsy affects how others treat him, for one thing, and it affects the lives of his family. To help pay for treatment that Nolan guiltily knows isn’t working, his mother takes a second job, for instance. Even knowing that he’s not having seizures so much as he’s seeing into another world, Nolan’s life isn’t what you’d call easy. It’s difficult for him to focus. He’s withdrawn, misses much of his schoolwork, has few friends and hobbies. He may not have a rare form of epilepsy, but his ability to view another world when his eyes are closed affects so many aspects of his life that he can’t separate the two.

Cilla’s curse also manifests as a form of disability, as she is hyper-aware of anything around her that could even scratch her skin, with the possibility of drawing blood. As I was reading about the diligence she and Amara used to keep her safe, I was reminded of stories of people with hemophilia, aware that bleeding can be dangerous for them and yet running that risk every moment of every day, especially in a time and place where medicines to treat such a condition weren’t available.

But it isn’t just disability that Otherbound tackles. No, running through the novel are multiple themes of duty and servitude, and the question of how much of a person’s actions are related to their relative social position and how much are because of their genuine thoughts and feelings. There are themes of abuse, with Jorn’s repeated over-the-top punishments of Amara, such as burning her hands to make her feel pain, knowing she wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the act. There are themes of love, obviously, because there are few books that don’t, and seeing the development of the relationships between Amara and Maart, and Amara and Cilla, were just fantastic. There’s the question of whether it’s good or bad to use someone without their permission if it results in saving them; Nolan took over Amara’s body and acted through her in order to save her, and save others, even when she actively didn’t want him around. It’s a complex and multi-layered story, one that surprised me since I’m used to seeing so many YA novels these days make passes at complexity while really only brushing lightly by it.

Otherbound constantly throws new twists at the reader. Just when I thought I understood what was going on, some new piece of information would be uncovered, or somebody would have an epiphany, and the plot would get deeper and more interesting, and I just found myself devouring this book. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down. Alternating the chapters between Amara’s viewpoint and Nolan’s (which often included more glimpses into Amara’s world, so Nolan’s chapters were still in part Amara’s too) was a good way to convey the whole story, showing how the two worlds and the two people were so connected.

Not to mention I have a weakness for stories that involve two spirits or minds in the same body, and it’s so rare that I find stories that actually incorporate that. Where at first I thought that this was going to be somewhat akin to Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, where the main character is mostly a passive observer until they themselves are changed by the character in their head, Nolan and Amara’s relationship grew more consciously symbiotic as the book progressed, until both of them knew how much they were needed. The driving force of the story still was centered in Amara’s world rather than Nolan’s, but there was some wonderful bleedover, and it was great to see the two stories intersect and combine in ways that I didn’t always predict.

But the ending. Oh god, that ending had me open-mouthed, in tears for a moment, because damn, does Duyvis ever know how to tug at my heartstrings! Much of the second half of the novel focuses on ending Cilla’s curse, and whether or not there’s a way to do it without killing her. I don’t want to give the ending away (though I will say that if you think it ends by Cilla dying, that’s not the whole picture, and there’s so much more to it), but suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat as I read through it, wondering whether each moment would be the last, wondering how it would all play out and come together in the end. I haven’t felt that kind of tension in a book, let alone a YA book, for quite some time, and my hat’s off to Duyvis for pulling it off.

Otherbound is a book that isn’t making as many waves as it ought to. I hadn’t even heard of it before seeing it mentioned on Our Words. It has good representation of disability, good representation of bisexuality, good representation of so much that it’s amazing to me that it slipped under my radar. I enjoyed it so much. There were some plot threads that I felt could have been expanded upon (or thrown in without much reason or purpose), but aside from that, really, it was a phenomenal book, and I think fans of YA fantasy and urban fantasy will eat this up just as much as I did. This leaves my hands highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing more of what Duyvis will do in the future.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love in this haunting debut novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).

What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of?

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

Review: Being an artist is residence is something I’ve dreamed of for years. It’s still a goal of mine, to be good enough that someone’s willing to provide me space and exposure so that I can focus on my art for a time, even if that means paying a hefty chunk of change. It’s something that pushes me to improve my art, that goal down the road that keeps me moving forward. I’ve had a fascination with them ever since I learned what they were.

So, a dark urban fantasy set in an artist residence? Sign me the hell up!

I want to take a quick moment to state, before the review really begins, that whoever in marketing decided that this should have a whole load of YA blogger outreach, well, didn’t really understand the book. This isn’t a YA novel. It lacks all the hallmarks of a YA novel. That isn’t to say that people who read a lot of YA won’t enjoy this, but teens aren’t the intended audience for this, and it’s pretty clear early on. I’d maybe class it as new adult, if I had to categorize it as something other than “a damn good urban fantasy novel” to begin with.

Now that’s aside, on to the meat of the review.

Imogen and Marin are sisters with a dark past. Abused by their mother, who saw Marin as potential for her own glory and Imogen as nothing compared to her sister, they both drown themselves in their art; writing and ballet, respectively. So when both of them win a residency spot at the highly-regarded Melete, a place that will pair them with a mentor and give them time and assistance to advance their chosen arts, it seems like something of a dream come true.

Only the dreams turn to nightmares as Melete’s true nature is revealed, peeling back the layers and stripping people bare and forcing them to confront the ultimate artist’s question: What would you sacrifice to achieve your dreams?

Be prepared to confront some disturbing darkness while reading Roses and Rot. It’s the kind of book that will strike chords with those who have experienced parental abuse or neglect, especially that driven by a parent who thinks their child’s success is nothing more than a reflection of the parent. Marin and Imogen’s mother treated them very differently, pushing Marin to succeed at ballet by constant negative reinforcement, threats, and insults, while treating Imogen as though she were less than dirt, only a hindrance to her talented sister, going so far as to burn Imogen’s hands when she’s discovered writing stories. The sisters experience a constant layer of dread in their lives, even after becoming adults and moving away from home, the knowledge that their mother will always try to contact them, try to worm her way back in, try to put them down and make their achievements all about her. I didn’t experience a family situation that bad, thankfully, but my own childhood was rough enough, and I know well that underfeeling of anxiety about every email, every phone call. Howard portrayed all that extremely well, and I felt that tension throughout the novel, even to the sort-of-resolution at the end.

The twist on fairy tales is beautifully done in Roses and Rot, and I couldn’t find fault with the setup at all. It was actually quite intriguing, and it left me wondering, at numerous points, what I would do were I in such a situation. Would I accept 10 years of imprisonment in another realm, essentially letting fairies feed from me, for the prize of success, of a guaranteed career that would last and would let me achieve all I worked for. The whole story was a tale of sacrifice, of potential, and or wondering what might be. It was great to see it all unfold, and to have so many thoughts provoked in me. What would you give up for success? How much is security worth? How much can you love someone or something, to exchange it for something else? These are hard questions to ask, ones that have no answer outside the individual, and Howard stressed them constantly through the book without letting the reader feel like they were being beaten over the head with an unanswerable moral judgment.

There’s so much I want to say about this book that, unfortunately, would result in my spoiling a beautiful and well-told story. What’s happening at Melete doesn’t stay a secret for long, and yet at every turn there was a new surprise, something unexpected, something to make my heart lurch. I shed tears more than once, while reading this. There’s some sections that will be triggering for some, particularly relating to child abuse, anxiety, and suicide. The content is dark and profound, beautiful and raw and full of emotion. It’s not an easy read. There’s love, betrayal, beauty, death, resolution, and sacrifice. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time, and the weight of Imogen’s decision can be felt increasingly as the story progresses.

In a nutshell, this book wrecked me. Wrung me out and left me a brand new shape, because it touched on so many personal fears and experiences and dreams; there’s no way I could have read this and been left untouched. It’s one of those rare books that inspired me in ways that few other books have accomplished, rekindling embers and making me believe that yes, there is hope for my dreams, and this book shows it. It will appeal to the artist, it will appeal to those who love dark fantasy, and it will appeal to those looking for something a bit different in their reading. This isn’t your average fairy tale. The fairies here have teeth, will cheerfully hurt you, and you’ll turn the page and let them do it again because you know that the further you go, the more you read, the better it will be in the end.

(Received from the publisher for review.)

The Second Death, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 29, 2016

Summary: For Diago Alvarez, that’s the choice before him. For unless he wants to see his son Rafael die, he must do the unthinkable: Help the Nazis receive the plans to the ultimate weapon.

And while Diago grows more comfortable not only with his heritage, but also with his place among Guillermo’s Los Nefilim, he is still unsure if he truly belongs amongst them.

In a frantic race to save the future of humanity, Diago is forced to rely on his daimonic nature to deceive an angel. In doing so, he discovers the birth of a modern god—one that will bring about a new world order from which no one can escape.

Review: Frohock has entertained us previously with her other two novellas in the Los Nefilim series, stories of immortal beings standing between angels and daimons, of Diago and Miquel and their relationship in 1930s Spain, and the events that surround and complicate their already complicated lives. Now the third installment of the series, The Second Death, picks up really only hours after the previous novella finished, throwing readers immediately back into the action and not giving the characters even a chance to catch their breath.

You’ve really got to feel sorry for Diago here, with his life seeming to get worse rather than better after having pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim. Now both he and his son are kidnapped, Rafael held hostage to ensure that Diago complies with Engel’s commands to acquire a weapon that reputedly could put an end to all wars. Seeing members of Los Nefilim go rogue convinces Diago that this time he’s really on his own, that he alone must foil Engel’s plans and escape with Rafael, before the balance of divine power shifts entirely.

Action and intrigue and the names of the game here, and the pulse-pounding pace barely lets up for a second. Happily, Frohock starts off the whole thing by giving a bit of a recap on what happened previously in the series, so as short as they are (only a little over 100 pages per novella), readers don’t have to go back and do a reread to ensure they know where everyone stands. Very beneficial in a story that’s as complex and full of twists as this one, and far better than having characters awkwardly do recaps along the way.

Though to be honest, I’m not opposed to rereading such a wonderful series at any point, and the story is one that has stuck firmly in my mind since I read the first one so many months ago.

One thing that stands out to me every time is the way the power and magic works through song. The descriptions are beautiful, breathtaking, and so easy to picture and feel. Maybe this is in part because I’m somewhat musically inclined myself and I find it very easy to envision the colours of notes and the way sounds can play powerfully off each other, but mostly I think it’s a testament to Frohock’s clarity of writing. Reading her work, I rarely find an unclear scene or fuzzy descriptions. It’s so easy to get lost in such vivid writing.

I can’t be sure, but I certainly hope that the series will continue in the future. A few plot threads have been left dangling, in particular the whole situation with Moloch and Alvaro and the whole “new god” issue. I’m definitely interested in seeing how that develops and plays out. In addition, there’s also the power play going on between Principalities, divine guardians (of a sort) of different countries, which is part of what led Engel to make his move and for Garcia to be so willing to between Guillermo and follow Engel in the first place. Knowing the time and place of the story makes it easy to see parallels to the lead-up of the second World War, but adding the angels and demons and the like makes it all the more interesting, provides a different perspective and additional layers to the whole tumultuous situation, and I, for one, want to see it all play out.

Long story short, if historical dark fantasy is your thing, if you enjoy plays and twists on Judeo-Christian mythology, if you want a wonderfully complex story that demands little but delivers much, then the Los Nefilim series is one you should definitely seek out. It’s hard for me to pick my favourite, because they all have appealed to me on various levels, and I’ve enjoyed them all equally and highly. The Second Death deals more with the forgiveness than the previous two, and justice versus vengeance, neither of which come across as heavy-handed or peachy, but even if you find yourself disagreeing with the conclusions that characters arrive at, there’s no end to the dark entertainment in the pages. Most definitely recommended to fans of dark fantasy!

(Received for review.)