Debut Review: Prospero Lost

Prospero-Lost
Prospero Lost

by L. Jagi Lamplighter
Tor Books

Available in hardcover, MM Paperback and ebook form

A while back, I mentioned that I was hungry for a meaty epic fantasy. I got what I asked for in a novel with an usual premise: it is set in a modern-day earth based on the writings of Dante, Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, Dante’s Inferno, Gnostic writings, various legends and fairy tales–and even children’s stories. I received this book in August, courtesy of Tor. They actually sent me the second book in the series, Prospero in Hell, but I had not read the first. So I wrote to the publicist who sent it to me and requested the first book in ePub format. therefore, I read Prospero Lost on my Nook.

Miranda is the Miranda of The Tempest. I meant to reread The Tempest before writing this review, but I’ve been swamped and so I decided to go ahead and write it. As the author mentions in an interview or FAQ that I read somewhere, she gives a recap of the whole play in the early chapters, anyway.

The novel begins with a premise that is absolutely fascinating. Miranda finds this secret message left by her father, which could only be read by the light of a phoenix lamp. Woah, I said to myself. A phoenix lamp? I’m hooked! Her father instructs her to locate her brothers and sisters–six, in all, but only five are still alive–and warn them that “the three shadowed ones” are after their magical staffs.

So yes, I was completely intrigued. But then, as I mentioned above, the book dives into lots of backstory. One of Miranda’s airy spirit servants is named Mab, and he’s in the guise of a 1940-s dime novel detective. Armed with his notebook and stubby pencil, he begins to question her. Not only are we given the story of The Tempest, but I discover that Miranda is the handmaiden of a divine being called Eurynome, whose symbol is a unicorn, and as such Miranda has been a virgin for her entire life–some 500 years.

It took me over a month to read the opening chapters. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I needed Miranda to save a cat or something, because she seemed cold and unlikable. I read Susanna Ive’s Rakes and Radishes and Julie Moffett’s No One Lives Twice, and finally I picked this up again.

Miranda decides to go after her brother Mephistopheles, first. Last she knew, he was in Chicago. After a few false leads, a prayer to Eurynome leads her to her brother. And at this point, she at last has her save the cat moment as she rescues him out of the gutter. Mephistopheles is now considered to be “mad”, but he also claims to know where all the rest of the brothers and sisters are.  Next they go after Theo, and when I met Theo, I finally became emotionally invested in the story, stopped setting it aside, and started really liking it. If only I could have had more of him!

The rest of the story consists of Miranda making contact with several of her siblings and trying to convince them to help. She’s also telling backstory to Mab, who like a good detective, is trying to come up with a motive that will lead him to the perps. There are a lot of twists and turns. If you read this story, pay attention to the episodes of backstory, which are usually conversations between Mab, Mephisto and Miranda. They are actually rather intriguing little side stories, and it seems like every detail is vital. Father Christmas makes an unexpected appearance in the story, and even he turns out to be quite important. There are elves, too–one of whom Mephisto was trying to get to marry Miranda. However, not only is Miranda sworn to remain a virgin, but she’s still hung up on the guy she met in The Tempest–Ferdinand–who she never actually married, and he makes an unexpected–although at this point, I should have expected it!–appearance as well.

I do have some nitpicks. There are entirely too many explanation points and dialog tags, especially when Mephisto is talking. Mephisto doesn’t come across as “mad” at all, merely eccentric–and no more eccentric than Miranda, herself. And Ms. Lamplighter did not handle her chapter endings well–she would build up to a cliffhanger or some emotional point, have a chapter break, and then resume the story after the point that the cliffhanger built up to. Therefore, we never got to experience the point of the cliffhanger, or we experienced it only as a recollection. Also, at first the book seems hostile to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, but this turns around the deeper you read, with one character saying that the family “never should have converted from Catholicism”. In fact, the story depends on the belief in many Christian concepts, albeit from a Renaissance worldview. I initially assumed that Eurynome was a goddess, but it turns out she was not–but what she is is nothing you would expect.

My last critique is that I had some suspension of disbelief issues toward the end when certain things were revealed that didn’t make much sense. Here is a spoiler that explains the problem in white text. Highlight it if you want to read it.:

When Prospero enslaved the winds, it seems that he also enslaved the spirits that control electrical power, and it is only due to Prospero’s binding of these spirits that the world can use electricity at all. He keeps them bound to make electricity behave as it does. However, this does not seem logical. Unless Prospero possessed the secrets of the universe when he enslaved the spirits, he would not know how to make the spirits behave when we reached the point where we harnessed electricity. So in this case, my suspension of disbelief is pushed to the point where I am forcing myself to buy into this premise.

By the end of the story, I loved Miranda and her brothers and sister, even Mephisto, who is rather annoying at first. I am ready to jump into the second story, Prospero in Hell, which has an intriguing image of a sword-wielding Miranda on the cover, and promises to introduce the rest of the Prospero children and reveal many secrets.

Prospero Lost is highly imaginative and packed with wonder. I am giving it three stars, however, I am placing it on my Keeper shelf. I recommend it if you have the patience to stick with a character who is compelling without being likable, and if a modern-day fantasy based on Renaissance Christian beliefs would appeal to you.

ThreeStars

AKeeper

Debut Review – The Sergeant's Lady


The Sergeant’s Lady

by Susanna Fraser (blog)
Carina Press

eBook – $5.39

Disclaimer–I am a Carina Press author. I promise that this review is as unbiased as possible.

I enjoy Regency Romances, even though I don’t read a lot of them. What I really enjoy is period literature from all throughout the eighteen hundreds, including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. So even though they are all Brits, you can see that I’m pretty eclectic. I haven’t read a Regency Romance in many years, but this is quite different from what I recall. Those novels never took place in an army encampment.

Anna Arrington is an officer’s wife and the niece of an Earl. Her marriage is a troubled one, as her ignorant husband makes an incorrect assumption about her on their wedding night, and he will neither be dissuaded from his misconception nor will he forgive her. Adding to their troubles is the fact that she cannot seem to conceive. And of course, he blames her. In an vain effort to help their marriage, she goes with him when he goes off to battle with Wellington’s army in Spain.

The novel starts when Anna defies her husband to help a camp follower named Juana give birth to a child. Juana’s lover happens to be best friends with Will Atkins, a popular sergeant with the Rifles. Anna and Will find themselves working together to save the child, earning both of them Juana’s everlasting gratitude and establishing an unlikely friendship between the officer’s wife and the commonborn sergeant.

I liked both Will and Anna. Ms. Fraser did a masterful job especially when portraying a scene from Will’s point-of-view. We easily feel like we are behind his eyes. She even uses a crude term that would immediately make this an R rated blog if I mentioned it. However, I cannot imagine an innkeeper’s son referring to his … maleness as anything other than his c**k. So it worked perfectly.  There were sex scenes, but I wouldn’t classify them as very hot. I did have a disturbing gustatorial (new word! Refers to taste–similar to visual) of bad teeth during the kissing scenes, but that was not the author’s fault. I simply get squeamish at the idea of kissing anyone in any time period that does not include modern dentistry.

If I had any critique, it’s that some of Anna’s problems were rather quickly solved. Which meant, in order to keep the plot moving, we needed no fewer than three villains. You can forget about the Regency trope where one bad-ass stalker of a villain pesters the lady until a climatic battle between the hero and the villain at the end. I do like that the plot was fresh, but I kept wondering when a certain unkilled villain was going to turn back up. Eventually, I realized that we had, indeed, seen the last of him. It’s good that as a reader, I was kept guessing, but that particular plotline wasn’t entirely satisfying. If any villain deserved to be killed, it was him.

Once the villains were out of the way, the reader was left wondering how the heck Anna and Will were going to get back together. I loved the long delays between letters–you sure had to have a lot of patience back then! The ending was very satisfying.

Also, my kudos to the cover artist. The artwork here is just dreamy.

The Sergeant’s Lady was an adventurous glimpse of a Regency period that does not include cotillion balls and tours in the country. Instead of trimming hats, Anna learns how shoot what must have been a black powder pistol. Instead of sleeping in feather beds, they must sleep in caves while on the run. And although Will rescues her plenty of time, in the end, Anna must rescue herself. I really enjoyed it, and I’ll look forward to Ms. Fraser’s next novel.

Debut Review: Shadow Bound


Shadow Bound

by Erin Kellison
Dorchester Publishing

Mass Market Paperback – 7.99

Imagine if your father was what the world fears most. Imagine if your father was Death.

Talia O’Brien doesn’t have to imagine in Erin Kellison’s Shadow Bound. Hunted by inhuman monsters all her life with no knowledge of why, regarded strangely for her unique combination of white-blone hair and jet-black eyes, and with the ability to manipulate shadows, Talia is alone in a world that doesn’t understand her–not that she understands herself. But she won’t be alone for long, because Adam Thorne is looking for her.

After reading Talia’s dissertation on near-death experiences, Adam believes Talia is the key to destroying the monstrous, soul-sucking wraith he keeps in the basement of Segue Institute–a monster who was once his brother. But when he discovers Talia’s strange talents and past, he believes she is much more–not just the key to destroying his brother, but putting an end to all wraithkind.

I’m having trouble finding criticisms for this book. I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy, but I really, really, really liked this one. First of all, it’s a breath of fresh air in a subgenre where vampires and werewolves rule. I know the fey are filtering into urban fantasy, but Shadow Bound still keeps it fresh, finding new twists and introducing characters who break the stereotypes for characters in urban fantasy books. If you’re getting tired of sassy, bad-ass urban fantasy heroines (the main reason I don’t read much urban fantasy), Shadow Bound is one to try. Talia isn’t the norm, and I love her for it.

But having unique twists, characters, and concepts isn’t enough. A novel like this need suspense, and Shadow Bound is indeed riveting. The author knows just how to push the characters into the impossible, then pull a miracle out of thin air and make it completely believable. There were several times where I thought, “Oh, they’re never going to get out of this,” and then to my complete surprise, they made it out alive. This wonderful ability to keep suspense high and tension boiling is what truly makes this book such a success.

If you’re turned off by racy scenes, let me go ahead and warn you that one of these appears very early in the book. But–and I know this may sound strange–it’s such a beautiful scene, and it really sets up the entire story; I don’t see how the author could have written things any other way. So while I warn you that it’s there, I’m also recommending that you not let this deter you. This is a book well worth reading.

Shadow Bound‘s sequel, Shadow Fall is already on shelves, released only a month after its predecessor. Both books are part of Dorchester’s Guaranteed Read program, which means that if you don’t like Shadow Bound, if you return it by 8/29/10, you’ll get a full refund from the publisher. So if it sounds interesting, you still have a little bit of time to try it risk-free. (Wow, I sound like an info-mercial!) But even with this guarantee, plan on making room for this one on your shelf, because it’s a compelling read.

Myself, I’m looking forward to reading Shadow Fall, so plan on that review coming soon.

Reviewed by Superwench83.

Katie Lovett, better known around these parts as Superwench83, is an aspiring novelist and published short fiction author. She blogs about writing, books, and the fantasy genre at her website, www.katie-lovett.com.

Debut Review: Shades of Milk and Honey


Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books

Hardcover, provided by Tor books (along with an advance ARC copy) — thank you!

While this will mostly be a positive review, I had one major problem with Shades of Milk and Honey that threatened to destroy my enjoyment of it altogether. And that was the impossible-to-ignore association it has with the writings of Jane Austen.

All the reviews I’ve read of this novel have been overwhelmingly positive. But how many of those reviewers are die-hard Jane fans, like myself? I really don’t know. I’ve read all six of Jane Austen’s novels multiple times, plus I have multiple movie adaptations: two of Pride and Prejudice, three of Emma (counting Clueless), two of Sense and Sensibility, and one each of the others. I looked forward to this novel with great anticipation.

This novel’s major hook is that it is “the fantasy novel that Jane Austen might have written.” However, Jane Austen gave her novels simple titles like Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s works never (that I can recall) included terms like modiste or ton. Jane Austen mostly wrote about country gentleman families, not the nobility, except to make gentle fun of them (Sir Elliot, Lady Dalrymple, Lady Bertram, Lady de Bourgh). Jane Austen never wrote about duels, or secret identities, men with murder on their consciences, even very many alarming situations. This novel has all of the above.

Sound pretty good? Actually, it is. But the whole Jane Austen thing was an incredible distraction for me. I realized it was interfering with my enjoyment of the novel, but the fact that the author preserved Jane Austen’s spellings (surprize, chuse, shew) kept jarring me out of the story. And the author is Mary Robinette Kowel, who won the Campbell award and whose short stories I’ve always enjoyed. With an extreme effort, I pushed — no, shoved — the whole Jane Austen thing aside and finished the book on its own merits.

And on its own merits, it’s a pretty damned good book.

Shades of Milk and Honey is about Jane, a plain young woman who is growing older, and who is resigning herself to life as a spinster. Her much-younger sister Melody is quite beautiful, but lacks in talent. Jane is the talented one, and has remarkable skill with the magical ability known as glamour. Both sisters are attracted to their neighbor, the gentle Mr. Dunkirk. Other people in the neighborhood include Mr. Dunkirk’s younger sister, Beth, Captain Livingston and his aunt, Lady FitzCameron, and Beth’s glamour tutor, Mr. Vincent.

I can certainly see heavy Jane Austen influences. An entailed estate. A ridiculous noblewoman. A leading man who is quite unremarkable at first. Jane Austen influences don’t bother me. I’ve written a novel that was influenced by Jane Austen (and James Bond!) myself. It’s when it ventures into becoming a homage or fan fiction when I seem to have a problem. And since such novels are popular, it’s probably just me.

In spite of my struggles, I had a hard time putting this novel down. I finished it well in advance of today’s date, which is the release date. Ms. Kowal’s concept of magic is wonderfully imaginative. You pull folds out of the ether and use them to create three-dimension virtual worlds (forgive the modern term) that are complete with sounds, smells and sensations (such as a gentle breeze). People often decorate their mansions with glamour, but it is not considered to be in good taste to overdo it. Nor is it in good taste to use glamour to increase one’s physical beauty, but of course people do it anyway. How fun is that!

The romance aspect of this novel was a stealth romance, because the main male protagonist is not at all evident, at first. And toward the end, he reveals his love in a way that is truly novel and unexpected. Up until that point, Jane and he (whose name I will not reveal) butt heads continually, and not necessarily in that sparkling Jane Austen style. They really are butting heads. But as it turns out, that’s only because they end up having so much in common. I could see the concept of the foil in this novel. Jane appears sweet and thoughtful next to her selfish sister. The self-absorbed Captain Livingston makes Mr. Dunkirk look good. And so on.

All in all, this is a fun fantasy, thought-provoking, not too heavy in drama, and with stakes that are personal rather than world-threatening. I can happily recommend it, along with Ms. Kowal’s short fiction. For a fun taste of her work, try the delightful “First Flight“, published at Tor.com. You can also read her award-winning story, “Evil Robot Monkey” — which is very touching and sad — and many of her other short stories at her short fiction page.

Debut Review – CAPTIVE SPIRIT by Liz Fichera


Captive Spirit
by Liz Fichera
Carina Press
eBook – $4.49

Historical Fiction

DISCLAIMER: My own novella is going to be published by this publisher.  I purchased my own copy.

(And aside – This was my nook inaugural read!)

Aiyana is having a hard time dealing with her impending womanhood. She has to do things like cook now, and dress up nice, and weave baskets. She’d much rather play ball in the ball court with the guys, and hang out with her friend, Honovi. She’d be just as happy to leave that whole marriage thing to her sister, who is happy to do it.

However, the chief’s son has eyed him as his wife, and he’s not about to be denied. So she runs. She doesn’t intend to run far, but there are Spaniards lurking nearby, and they don’t hesitate at the chance to grab her.

Captive Spirit was utterly gripping and engaging. It was loaded with escapes and recaptures, and well-balanced high and low points. It is based on an extinct American Indian tribe in present-day Phoenix valley, known today ad the Hohokam. They vanished for reasons unknown in the sixteenth century, and Ms. Fichera’s novel works on the theory that Spanish explorers were behind the disappearance.

No book is perfect, and I do have just a few critiques. Toward the end, I did wish some things had been better established in the beginning. Because much of this novel takes place away from Aiyana’s home, we didn’t get much of a chance to experience her dread of basket-weaving, which becomes a plot point late in the story. I can understand Ms. Fichera’s reasons for keeping that part of the novel short–it would have been a slow read if she had dragged it out. But the basket-weaving angle seemed to come out of the blue at the end. There was also a certain event at the end of the story that was a mite too convenient for the plot.

Aiyana was an extremely likable character, with a lot of grit and determination. She gives her captors a great deal of trouble, especially when she befriends their pet wolf well enough that he is no longer of much use in tracking her. She recognizes their strengths and takes advantage of their weaknesses. She leaves tokens for anyone who might have followed her to find.

The Apache make an appearance in this novel, and they of course are alive and well nowadays in Northern Arizona. Ms. Fichera gives them a balanced presentation, with characters both antagonistic and protagonistic.

Captive Spirit was a captivating and quick read. Lovers of historic fiction will enjoy it, especially those of you who, like me, enjoy reading about other cultures. It felt well-researched and real, and I recommend it highly.

Debut Review: Redemption in Indigo


Redemption in Indigo

by Karen Lord
Small Beer Press
Trade Paperback – $16

I have often said that I love novels that can take me to a different time, or a different place, or both. Redemption in Indigo does that and more–it takes me to a different culture. These are the best of all. Novels like Clavell’s Shogun are in this class, along with Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (which my father recommended to me but I have never read), and Grave’s I, Claudius. Redemption in Indigo takes the tradition of all of these and adds the sparkle of fantasy.

I realize that I’ve placed this novel in lofty company. But Redemption in Indigo is wonderful. It begins after Paama has left her husband Ansige, and returned to her parent’s village. Ansige has hired a legendary tracker to find her and when the tracker reports her location, Ansige goes looking for her.

Ansige is a glutton to an extreme degree. Although he doesn’t know it, he is bedeviled by tiny tricksters who whisper temptation and self-destruction into his hear. He has no will to resist and will do the most amazing things to get and keep food for himself. When he finally gets to Paama’s village, she tries to cover for his glaring acts of idiocy. Eventually, they prove beyond even her skills and she tells him that she has left him for good.

The tricksters have no effect on her. And mysterious deity-like watchers decide that she is the right person to be custodian of the Chaos Stick.

Of course, the previous custodian will do anything to get it back. And did I mention he’s a god? The gods are called djombi, and they can travel effortlessly between time and space. And very soon, Paama finds herself facing him.

Ms. Lord writes in an unusual storytelling style that surprised me at first–especially when she addressed the reader, directly. Some call this authorial intrusion, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, and the unknown narrator becomes another character in the book, especially in the very end.

Although the woman on the cover is dark-skinned, race never plays a large factor in this story. Ms. Lord leaves skin color entirely up to the reader, with the exception of the Indigo Lord. But the culture, she does describe. The village where Paama lives is a dusty farming community. Water must be fetched. To make dumplings, you must first grind the meal with mortar and pestle, and grinding is done in the village court. And a wedding feast is held in a tent.

Redemption in Indigo will whisk you to the other side of the world, immerse you in another culture and take you back in time. It was a dreamy voyage through the senses. I highly recommend it. And when you have finished reading it, be sure to tip the storyteller.

Debut Review: The Alchemy of Murder


The Alchemy of Murder
by Carol McCleary
Forge Books
Hardcover – 24.99 (discounts available)

Reviewed by Superwench83.

The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary is one of those high-concept ideas that made me say, “Okay, I have got to read this.” It teams the first woman reporter Nellie Bly of the New York World with the famous French author Jules Verne as they track a mad scientist who is murdering street women in Paris. With legendary microbe hunter Louis Pasteur and the flamboyant Oscar Wilde at their sides, Nellie and Jules work their way through seamy Parisian streets, hospitals, and laboratories in search of the killer Nellie met in New York years before.

Nellie Bly is a perfect protagonist for a story such as this. She may have more enthusiasm than common sense, but she is spirited and strong, a reporter devoted entirely to getting her story. You just can’t help but root for her. A woman who purposefully has herself committed to a notorious insane asylum for the sake of an expose is a character who is sure to keep you guessing page after page. There is just enough character development to keep you invested in the characters, but not enough to bog down the fast-moving plot. It’s a delicate balance, and I think the author handled it quite well.

The setting is also vividly drawn, in all its grittiness. The Alchemy of Murder is set in a time and place which simmers with turmoil and rage. There are people starving and dying on the streets, and the muddled, floundering government has trouble doing anything effective. It’s a breeding ground for discontent, and communist revolutionaries abound—some whose plans go no further than philosophical café conversations, and some who will murder and steal and scheme to bring about their new regime. Combine this already turbulent era with the World’s Fair in Paris, toss in a crazed scientist and a biological weapon, and you’ve got a page turner in classic thriller style.

The only major issue I had with this book was the abundance of typos, misspellings, and improper punctuation…which I know is a silly thing to be upset about, but they were so numerous as to be distracting. It’s actually a trend I’ve noticed in new releases quite a lot these days. It makes me wonder if publishers are cutting back on copyediting to save money in these unstable economic times. It’s only speculation, of course, but I do wonder. The Alchemy of Murder is far from the only new release I’ve read recently with such problems; it was just the final straw, the one which makes me say in a review, “Hey! What gives?” But I digress.

At any rate, The Alchemy of Murder is a thriller with a twist. It combines mystery, history, and science to bring to life beloved figures from the past as they work to stop a madman from causing more death. From the way things ended in this book, I can see more Nellie Bly mysteries to come, following her from one adventure to the next. An exciting read, and I’m sure any subsequent books will be just as satisfying.

Katie Lovett, better known around these parts as Superwench83, is an aspiring novelist and published short fiction author. She blogs about writing, books, and the fantasy genre at her website, www.katie-lovett.com.


Debut Review: Embers by Laura Bickle

EMBERS
by Laura Bickle
Juno Books – $7.99

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Review by Deborah Blake

Anya Kalinczyk is an arson investigator with the Detroit Fire Department. She is also a Lantern, a type of psychic medium so rare that as far as she knows, she is the only one. When not at her day job, she works with DAGR, the Detroit Area Ghost Researchers, an eccentric bunch of ghost hunters. Anya’s rare talent allows her to absorb malicious spirits into her own core, thus extinguishing them forever; a mixed blessing, and a last resort.

An unusual increase in malevolent spirit activity and a series of mysterious fires send Anya on the trail of a supernatural arsonist—who just may be a Lantern like her. Both attracted to and repulsed by this dangerous adversary, Anya jeopardizes her friendships and her budding relationship with one of the DAGR members to try and handle the crisis on her own. Using only her salamander familiar and her own uncertain gift, she battles demons both real and emotional, slowly getting in further and further over her head.

In the end, she must reach out for help or risk losing not just her life but the city she has fought so hard to defend. On Devil’s Night, her foe will attempt to summon an ancient entity to consume Detroit and all those in it, unless Anya can find the strength to stop him.

EMBERS is a strong debut; well written and peopled by diverse and intriguing characters. Anya is a tortured soul—in more ways than one—and often her own worst enemy. As a reader, you sympathize with her friends’ frustration as she pushes away those who would help her, insisting on doing everything by herself. But once you learn her history, it becomes clear that Anya is damaged; and this story is as much about her own redemption as it is about her fight to keep her beloved city safe.

The unexpected beauty of the fiery entity, the playful malignance of the demon that inhabits Anya, and the flashes of humanity demonstrated by her enemy all enrich this book. My only complaint (and it is a small one) is that Bickle occasionally displays some of the writing flaws of a beginning author; words repeated too often or too closely, and once a contradiction that temporarily threw me out of the story. But overall, this is a winner, and I look forward to reading Anya’s further adventures. And her familiar Sparky is one of my new favorite paranormal creatures.

Deborah Blake is an award-winning author with five books on modern Witchcraft. Two of these are coming out this year: EVERYDAY WITCH A TO Z SPELLBOOK (Llewellyn, July) and WITCHCRAFT ON A SHOESTRING (Llewellyn, September). She also writes Urban Fantasy and is represented by Elaine Spencer of The Knight Agency. Deborah gives a number of highly successful online writing workshops and has a loop, THE CREATIVITY CAULDRON, for paranormal authors. Her website is www.deborahblakehps.com.

Black Blade Blues


Black Blade Blues
by J. A. Pitts
Tor Books
Trade Paperback – 15.99

Reviewed by Deborah Blake.

One of the things I enjoy as a reader is coming across a book that is completely different from anything I have read before; whether it is plot, characterization, or worldbuilding. Debut author J. A. Pitts certainly achieved that in his urban fantasy, Black Blade Blues.

Sarah Beauhall is an unusual protagonist. A blacksmith by day and a props manager for low-budget movies by night, she spends her free time fighting with a medieval reenactment group. And she’s gay. I challenge you to find another heroine anything like her.

Sarah is already overwhelmed by juggling two jobs and her emotional issues about being in a relationship that her rigidly moral father would have disowned her for. Then her girlfriend uses the dreaded “love” word. And a sword Sarah brought to the set for use as a prop breaks during filming, so she must repair the blade. And therein hangs the tale.

Because the sword is actually Gram, the mystical dragon-slaying sword from Norse mythology. Soon Sarah is in way over her head, dealing with dwarves, dragons, trolls, and a truly frightening witch—who may or may not be on her side. She discovers that centuries-old dragons masquerading as wealthy businessmen control some of the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest. In the midst of all this action, Sarah fights her own self-doubt and self-loathing, alienates her allies, and brings her life to a screeching halt. In the end, she must learn to trust both herself and others, and fight to save all that she values.

Overall, I really enjoyed Black Blade Blues. I loved the realistic details of the smith-work and the movie set, thought the descriptions of the local scenery and the battle scenes were exceptional, and the mythology was woven seamlessly into the world of present-day Seattle. These things alone made it worth reading the book. I was also surprised to see (from reading the dedication) that the author was a happily married man; very different from the protagonist who provided the main point of view for the novel. [Just a side note: Pitts managed to switch from first-person point-of-view to a couple of different third-person view points without jarring or confusing the reader. As an author, I can tell you; this is extremely difficult to do. So kudos on that one!]

I only had one real complaint about the book, and that is probably a personal bugaboo rather than a true flaw in the novel. Sarah is, for the most part, a flawed and unhappy character. She is struggling to come to terms with her relationship with her lover and has problems making real connections with anyone. The character can be hard to like at times, although by the end of the book her journey is starting to transform her. It was often painful to watch her screw up repeatedly—although, to be fair, some of her problems were brought on by mood swings caused by possession of the magical sword. And the battle scene was brutal, so if you have a weak stomach, you may have a hard time with this one. It was well-written enough to be unpleasant to experience, even second-hand.

This is an impressive debut, and I look forward to seeing Sarah’s adventures continue in the next installment of this series. If you like Norse mythology, dragons, atypical characters, and non-stop action, you’re sure to enjoy the roller coaster ride that is Black Blade Blues.

Debut Review – Three Days to Dead by Kelly Meding


Three Days to Dead

Kelly Meding (website)
Dell
Mass market paperback, $7.99

Reviewed by Raven

A murdered woman wakes up in the morgue, in a stranger’s body, with three days to figure out who killed her and why. After those three days are up, she’ll be dead for good. With that plot, I couldn’t pass this up. It’s 100% high-concept, as they say in Hollywood. You can hook your audience on the plot with one sentence (okay, maybe two). I got hooked, at any rate.

Blurb:

She’s young, deadly, and hunted—with only three days to solve her own murder…

When Evangeline Stone wakes up naked and bruised on a cold slab at the morgue – in a stranger’s body, with no memory of who she is and how she got there – her troubles are only just beginning.  Before that night, she and the other two members of her Triad were star bounty hunters — mercilessly cleansing the city of the murderous creatures living in the shadows, from vampires to shape-shifters to trolls. Then something terrible happened that not only cost all three of them their lives, but also convinced the city’s other Hunters that Evy was a traitor . . . and she can’t even remember what it was.

Now she’s a fugitive, piecing together her memory, trying to deal some serious justice – and discovering that she has only three days to solve her own murder before the reincarnation spell wears off. Because in three days, Evy will die again – but this time, there’s no second chance…

However, one of the downsides of a high-concept plot is sometimes the book (or movie) ends up being mostly plot-driven, and characters don’t get developed as fully as readers (or viewers) might like. That was the biggest problem I had with Three Days to Dead.

The plot itself was fine. It hit all the right beats in the right places and included a twist I hadn’t predicted to get the characters out of a tight spot near the end (I did predict the subsequent twist on this twist). The story was resolved satisfyingly. But as someone who reads for character, I felt a lack.

Evy Stone, the murdered protagonist, is a bounty hunter who hunts “Dregs,” non-human creatures who would love to replace humanity with themselves. Actually, not all of these creatures are bad, and Evy doesn’t hunt indiscriminately. The novel includes a bunch of supernatural races, some pure evil, others less straightforward. Kelly Meding even manages to get away with elves.

Now, Evy should have been a character I’d enjoy spending time with. I tend to go for dark characters with gray morality and trauma and tragedy in their pasts. It doesn’t get much more traumatic than dead, and I think you could say as a bounty hunter operating on the fringes of society, Evy’s in the gray zone. Granted, she had some strikes against her. She’s a kickass female urban fantasy protagonist, and I’ve kind of had my fill of those. But I went into the novel hoping I’d like her because I liked the novel’s hook so much.

But I had trouble empathizing with Evy. Actually, there was only one character I found myself empathizing with, and he wasn’t major AND he got killed off (it’s not a spoiler since I’m not telling you who he is). The characters served the plot well, but they didn’t give me the emotional connection I was looking for. That made this novel less memorable and engaging than it could have been. Also, if a novel is the first in a series, which this one is, and has a self-contained plot, which this one does, then the main reason I’d go out and buy the next book would be I couldn’t get enough of the characters. If the characters didn’t leave as much of an impression on me as I would have liked, I probably won’t buy the next book (or get it as a review copy).

Of course, not everyone is like me. I’d love to hear from other people on why they continue to buy the books in a series.

My final verdict on Three Days to Dead: For fans of highly plot-driven urban fantasy with a kickass female protagonist, I can recommend Three Days to Dead as a read you’ll probably enjoy. But if you read for character, you might want to browse significant chunks of this novel to make sure Evy’s going to work for you before you commit.