Serena’s Review: “Soul Taken”

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Book: “Soul Taken” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The vampire Wulfe is missing. Since he’s deadly, possibly insane, and his current idea of “fun” is stalking Mercy, some may see it as no great loss. But when he disappears, the Tri-Cities pack is blamed. The mistress of the vampire seethe informs Mercy that the pack must produce Wulfe to prove their innocence, or the loose alliance between the local vampires and werewolves is over.

So Mercy goes out to find her stalker—and discovers more than just Wulfe have disappeared. Someone is taking people from locked rooms, from the aisles of stores, and even from crowded parties. And these are not just ordinary people but supernatural beings. Until Wulfe vanished, all of them were powerless loners, many of whom quietly moved to the Tri-Cities in the hope that the safety promised by Mercy and Adam’s pack would extend to them as well.

Who is taking them? As Mercy investigates, she learns of the legend of the Harvester, who travels by less-trodden paths and reaps the souls that are ripe with a great black scythe. . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” , “Fire Touched” , “Silence Fallen”,  “Storm Cursed” and “Smoke Bitten”

Review: I’m always happy when I see another “Mercy Thomson” book coming my way. I’ve always preferred this series to the “Alpha and Omega” companion series, and it’s been running on a high note for the last few books. Plus, I’m really getting pretty desperate about my urban fantasy situation. I’ve tried out a few things here and there, but how many of those reviews have you seen on this blog? Yeah…I think that says it all. Anyways, on to my tried and true!

Something is going on with the vampires. A sentence no one wants to hear, especially not Mercy and her pack of werewolves who are responsible for the lives of everyone in the Tri City area. The powerful and eccentric vampire, Wulfe, is missing and his mistress is also behaving strangely, tasking Mercy to find her lost vampire. At the same time, an urban legend of a powerful, dangerous weapon wielded by a being called the Harvester is beginning to sound like a bit more than a myth. On top of that, secrets in the pack are coming to a head. All just in another day for Mercy Thompson!

I really liked this entry into the Mercy Thompson series. For one thing, I was glad to see that we, again, experienced the book through Mercy’s eyes, with only a few the interruptions of chapters from Adam’s perspective. While there wasn’t a lot of character growth for either main character or changes in their relationship, this is hardly surprising considering we’re on, what, the 13th book? There was a bit of discussion around the continuing challenges of the secondary, beast form that Adam has been cursed with. I liked some of the exploration around this form being an extension of long-repressed PTSD from his time as a soldier before he became a werewolf.

For Mercy’s part, we see her continue to grapple with her understanding of her mentor/quasi-father figure, Zee, a powerful Fae being. The mystery of this book dives deeply into Zee’s own past, and we see Mercy again have to confront the darker sides of her friends. As she spends most of her time surrounded by “monsters,” this type of grappling with finding the good in beings who, in some form or another, routinely deal with death, has always been a compelling part of the story.

Beyond Zee’s story, we also get more background into Bran and his family. I was still left wanting a bit more here, but it’s always interesting when we can add layers on top of this complicated character and his sprawling history as the leader of the werewolves. Mostly, however, the book focused in on the history of the vampires we know well: Marsilia, Stephen, and, most especially, Wulfe. There was a lot of great history to be found here, and I really liked how their story was tied into the other mystery of the Harvester and how that had become an urban legend in the first place.

For everyone who enjoys this series, this was definitely a solid entry. It doesn’t advance Mercy’s own story in any significant ways, but it also continues the tradition of finding clever ways to use her shifter affinity with death magic to solve otherwise impossible situations. We also got a good amount of information about the vampires and their twisted histories and relationships. Fans of the series will likely be very happy with this one.

Rating 8: A clever use of Mercy’s magic, a nice addition to the lore of this world, and a fun story all around!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Soul Taken” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Most Anticipated PNR 2022 and Trickster Gods.

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Haven”

Book: “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.

In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.

Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?

Review: I am now at that age where if someone asks me what I want for my birthday or the holidays, more often than not I think ‘ah crap’. Given that one of my biggest hobbies is reading, one might think that books are always an option, but more often than not I just use the library, especially since I work for one. But I keep a few in mind, especially for my husband, so this past November when he asked for birthday ideas I told him “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith. I’d seen it bumping around my social media feeds on and off, and on top of that it is not only a mysterious boarding school story, it also has witches! And you know me, I’m always down for some teenage coven shenanigans!

(source)

I should definitely say right away that “The Witch Haven” is more of a YA Urban Historical Fantasy, a genre that isn’t usually my wheelhouse, especially on the blog. But I figured that witches, being one of my faves, was fair-ish game, and while the genre tropes constrained it a bit (for me at least), overall I enjoyed this book. Firstly, I really enjoyed the time and place. We find ourselves in 1911, and in New York City, so the time period is one that I’m not as familiar with books wise. This post Gilded Age, solidly Progressive Era timeframe makes for interesting themes and historical footnotes, and I felt that Smith used these to her advantage. We both address the constraints of women during this time, be it the factory work that many had to endure (and yes, there are references to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), the Suffrage Movement, and the way that men, even in magical settings, are constantly trying to hold them back and take their power. Sometimes literally. Frances, our protagonist, is whisked away to Haxahaven School because her powers manifested after she was attacked by her boss at the shop she works at as a seamstress, and the mythology of Haxahaven and the way witches are seen and function in historical New York City is unique and entertaining.

I also appreciated that Smith doesn’t look back at every element of this time period as rosy when it comes to progressive ideas, nor does she paint Haxahaven School as a super positive and supportive ‘yasss queen’ institution (though the friendships that Frances makes there are VERY positive and show a supportive and feminist group of women). This is most revealing when it comes to Frances’s roommate and close friend Lena. The girls who attend Haxahaven are plucked from their lives and taken to the school to learn how to control their magic and to become witches who can harness their powers, even if that means sometimes stifling them. For Lena, however, it is not an empowering place, as she is Indigenous, and longs to return to her family and her community. I liked that Smith had Lena in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it shows that the feminism of this time period was reserved for white women only, and that women like Lena were ignored or abused because of their race. It also was a way to address the Boarding Schools for Indigenous children in this country during this time period (as Lena was taken from a boarding school to attend Haxahaven), and how it was a tenant of genocide that our government was committing against Natives. I can’t speak to whether Smith did her due diligence when it comes to telling Lena’s story, but I liked that the broader themes of this story were told.

But there were some stumbles along the way in “The Witch Haven”. For one, the pacing feels a little off. It has a lot of fast paced plotting at the beginning, but we get a little bogged down as Frances and her friends make connections with Finn, a young man who is a magic student at a male institution. It ramps up again once we get to the last third of the book, but it slogs a bit as Frances interacts with Finn in hopes of learning some of his magic to find out what happened to her murdered brother William. I think that part of the problem is that I didn’t really care for Frances as a character, so therefore her story and her journey didn’t keep me as interested when we needed that exposition. I think my biggest issue with her is that she is purely defined by her brother’s death and wanting to solve what happened, with little other interesting character traits. I also found her decisions to be unclear, like why she is so suspicious of the people she is living with and learning with, but more than happy to trust Finn and the people he is allied with without any questions. It just felt like her character development was less for her and more to progress the plot.

All that said, the ending is a bit open ended, and my interest was piqued enough by it that should Smith write a sequel I would probably pick it up, just to see what happens next. “The Witch Haven” didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but it was fine for what it was.

Rating 6: Though the pacing is a little off at times and the main character a bit grating, overall “The Witch Haven” has a fun setting that lets witches shine, albeit with complexities of the time period.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch Haven” is included on the Goodreads lists “ATY 2022: Academia or Teacher Impacted”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

Find “The Witch Haven” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Sin & Chocolate”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Sin & Chocolate” by K.F. Breene

Publishing Info: Hazy Dawn Press, Inc, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Some people are ordained for greatness…

Those people usually have a lot of drama in their life. Drama I happily do without. I live in a forgotten corner of nowhere for a reason: there is safety in anonymity. I have enough problems just trying to get by.

But when Kieran, a sinfully sexy demigod at the pinnacle of power, crashes into my life, suddenly my whole world is turned upside down.

He’s harboring a deadly secret, one that could destroy all he holds dear. He thinks I’m the key to his salvation, and he wants me to help him claim vengeance.

He also wants me with a passion that burns my body from the inside out.

To ignore him is impossible, but to give in to my desires, even for a night, would thrust me into danger I might not survive.

Can I resist the temptation?

Review: So, I started reading this book under a bit of a false pretense. Mostly, that I thought it fell fairly purely under the subgenre “urban fantasy.” I typically only have a few urban fantasy series that I follow, and now that a few of them have ended and few other have become disappointments, I was hankering for a new series. And this title appeared on a few lists, so I thought, let’s give it a shot! And it’s not bad, by any means. But I’d definitely have went in with different expectations if I had seen this cover when I picked it up (or, frankly, read the description above):

Yeaaaah, definitely looks more like a romance novel cover than an urban fantasy cover!

Existing between worlds, that is between the magical and the “normal” world, is both the most dangerous place to be but also one of the few places where one can fully disappear. This is where Lexie exists, trying to keep her head down and provide for her two wards, each with their own unique needs. But her quiet existence is rudely interrupted by Kieran, a powerful magical being who very much does not exist in the shadows. And in Lexie he sees someone much more powerful than she claims or suspects.

I think my confusion about this book is also kind of fair. A lot of romance “series” are books linked by a shared world/group of people but focus on different main characters and couples in each. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, usually follows one or two main characters over the course of a series, similar to other fantasy genres. So, while this one does have the romance novel cover and a lot of the romance novel plot/language, it also fits into the urban fantasy genre.

For one thing, this book is clearly the first book in a series and as such spends much of its time developing the world in which Lexie and Kieran exist. There were a lot of interesting elements involved in this world where magic and magical beings have been living out in the open for quite a while. We see the political nature of it, with various groups coming down as either supportive or discriminatory towards magical beings. There’s also the pull and push of the power players on both sides of the magical and nonmagical line. And with this struggle comes the cracks that the vulnerable fall into. Through Lexie’s eyes, we see how both the magical and nonmagical communities have let down those who they don’t see as important. It’s a narrative that is very easy to take out of the fantasy genre and apply to the world around us.

That said, this focus on world-building, while interesting enough on its own, also very much slows down the pace of the story. That was probably my biggest problem with the book: the pace. I struggled to maintain interest, even within a book that was introducing what should be exciting new fantasy elements every which way. But for some reason, the plot itself felt plodding. There were witty conversations, but much of it felt like it wasn’t really leading to anything or illuminating anything new about the characters themselves.

I felt like I knew who these characters were the moment I met them, and that was also a bit disappointing. Lexie was ok, but I also feel like I’ve read variations of her a million times before and I, personally, can’t relate to some of her fixations with shopping and other things. Not that those are not worthy hobbies or interests, they’re just not really my thing so I couldn’t really invest in some of her fixations there. And Kieran was your typical arrogant, powerful hero who also has a heart of gold towards the woman he briefly meets and immediately becomes intrigued with.

In the end, this was just ok. It didn’t blow me away, but it was also solid enough for what it was trying to do. I do think that if I had had it in mind as more heavily focused on the romance side of things before I started I would have at least been in the right mindset. However, I’m still left looking for another urban fantasy series to get started on!

Rating 7: This book walks a strange line between romance novel and urban fantasy but doesn’t quite fit in either category.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sin & Chocolate” is on these Goodreads lists: Under the Radar Page-Turners and NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance.

Serena’s Review: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Previously Reviewed: “Jade City” and “Jade War”

Review: This has been one of the biggest break-out, surprise fantasy trilogies I’ve read in a while. I went in with pretty much zero expectations and have come out having read something so unique and so precisely written that I struggle to find apt comparisons. With my expectations sky high, I was both really excited to start this final chapter and incredibly nervous. The end really makes the entire thing, and what a tragedy would that be for it to crash?

What had been distinct and local to Kekon has blown up the outside world: Jade and it’s incredible powers to enhance human abilities. Not only does this type of powerful substance shift political powers and economies, but the tradition and regulation that grew up around it on Kekon is shaken by exposure to outside forces. The Green Bone way of life teeters on a perilous balance, and the Kaul family feels the threat to their clan and way of life. The walls are closing in and soon they may be forced to make a terrible choice to ensure their continued existence.

It has become increasingly clear as this trilogy has continued that it is largely a political fantasy. Arguably, the first book has more of an action-feeling and is largely concentrated on smaller, more individual stories, thus making it feel like a more straight-forward urban fantasy story. But the second book blows the scope outwards, landing several of our characters in other countries. On top of that, we begin to see Jade trickling out into this greater world. But here, in the last book, all of that comes fully into its own. All of the pieces that were laid down into the foundation of the political struggles ahead come to fruition, and the story fully embraces the larger, political clashes as the focal point of the story. Depending on your enjoyment of political fantasy, this will either be a boon or a bit of a let-down. I feel like it has built steadily in the first two books, and as I enjoy political fantasy, I was more than down to read a book that really delved into the complicated political maneuverings required in this new world order that involves Jade.

This switch in focus is even more apparent given the story’s generational approach. While the first books focused on smaller chunks of time and a fairly steady cast of characters, here the story jumps in huge leaps and bounds. Readers are left to either keep up or fall behind. I typically don’t enjoy stories that involve huge jumps in time. And while I think it worked here (indeed, I’m not sure how the same story could have been told without using this device), I will say that I did miss the closer character work that I had seen in the first two books. I’m a very character-driven reader, however, so this is definitely a subjective perspective.

The ending is everything the trilogy deserves. I think it may also be a bit divisive. There are a lot of twists and turns within the story, with it rarely going the direction I had anticipated. And the ending is no different. I think it ties everything up perfectly, but throughout the story, Lee doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty with the realities of the world she has created. I, for one, found this book to be a surprising, yet pitch perfect, end to a fantastic urban fantasy trilogy.

Rating 8: Magnificent. With this incredible conclusion to the Green Bone Saga, Lee has vaulted herself into the realms of the likes of N.K. Jemisin and other award-winning fantasy authors of the day.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade Legacy” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Asian Diaspora Sci-fi and Fantasy Books and Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies.

Find “Jade Legacy” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “Jade Legacy”

Book: “Jade Legacy” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2021

Book Description: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.

The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Giveaway Details: I’ve really been enjoying this fantasy series by Fonda Lee. It’s such a complicated, interesting world filled with complicated, interesting people. At various points in both of the first books I would be actively disliking a character only to have the entire board be flipped and finding that character to be one of the most compelling.

The story is also vast, tackling big concepts such as globalization, generational change, and the tenuous relationship between history and culture. Between the actual individual conflicts (full of fantasy action that feels nonstop) and the larger conflicts between the various gangs and countries at play, the story is full of tension and escalating consequences as the series has progressed. With this increasingly grand scale in mind, I’m really curious to see where this story is headed. It seems to be setting up a story that will move beyond the generation that we’ve mostly followed in the first two books. My full review is coming out this Friday. But in the mean time, make sure to enter to win a copy! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Nov. 17.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Wild Sign”

Book: “Wild Sign” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It’s as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they’ve consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.

Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous — and it has met werewolves before.

Previously Reviewed: “Burn Bright”

Review: If you go back and read my review of the previous book in the “Alpha and Omega” series, you’ll see that I was…less than thrilled with that entry. My concerns from that book spanned both this series as well as the “Mercy Thompson” books. But as my review earlier this week demonstrated, that series managed to sidestep the implications of the events in “Burn Bright.” But I was always a bit more concerned with how the next book in this series would do, given that Bran is more of a main character here. And, well, Briggs tries to walk it back a bit, I guess. But unfortunately the distraction offered in the main plot just introduces another frustration of mine.

Old things live in the dark wilds of the forest. And if you stay on the path, maybe you’ll miss the dangers lurking there. But when an entire town’s worth of people go missing, what lurks in the shades of the trees leaves a mark to big to ignore. Anna and Charles are called into action to track down the mystery. Where do you start, though, when all of the victims seem to have vanished into the air leaving behind no trace? Clues exist however in rumors of a powerful force that once lived there centuries before and may have faced werewolves before.

So, I did like this book overall. It’s hard, however, to write a review without taking up tons of wordcount on how this book deals with the fallout of the previous one. Or getting sucked into a long commentary piece on my frustrations with one particular aspect of it that I’m beginnig to struggle with more and more. So…I’ll try to write a fairly general bit before getting into any of that.

Overall, I liked the villain at the heart of this story. Its powers and backstory were very unique and interesting and left me guessing for much of the story. I was able to piece a few bits together early on, but there were a number of genuine surprises throughout that really helped build towards the final conflict. The action and threat-level felt high when it needed too, and there was a underlying sense of doom that pervaded the book in a really nice, creepy way.

I also liked what we got from Charles and Anna. Brother Wolf, the personified version of Charles’s wolf half was given more to say/do here and it was almost like having an entire third character. Might be a bit unfortunate, though, when your wolf character is more interesting than the two humans. Not that Charles and Anna are bad characters, but they still seem a bit dull and one-note, especially in comparison to the characters in the Mercy Thompson series.

The book also introduces a few chapters from Leah’s perspective. On the surface, this is a good thing. The story largely has to do with events in her history, and it’s great seeing inside the head of a character who has been at the heart of so much conflict earlier in the series and even in the “Mercy Thompson” series. It seems clear that by doing this Briggs is attempting to respond to the criticism of the previous book. Her history is such that Bran’s actions in her life are highly criticized by both Charles and Anna. Briggs also seems to try to build up a more true relationship between Leah and Bran with Bran needing to deal with his own past actions and open up to Leah more. It’s all well and good, I guess, but, really, it just makes the previous book’s “reveal” about Bran’s feelings for Mercy feel more about of place. This book not only doesn’t address that but seems to want to just paint over that with some alternative history in which Bran does care for Leah and that whole Mercy thing…never happened.

But when diving into Leah’s history, Briggs steps right into another big problem that I have. I’ve already struggled with the fact that both of Briggs’ leading ladies has a history of being a rape victim. Several SFF authors have written about how pervasive this particular trauma is within the genre and how unfortunate that fact is. Here are two of my favorite pieces, one by Seanan McGuire and one by Sarah Gailey. Each tackles the topic much more thoroughly and eloquently than I can.

Unfortunately, this book not only includes another rape attempt on our main character, but gives the only other POV female character we have a history of rape as well. Now all three POV female characters we’ve had in both series have experienced this particular trauma. Beyond that, the topic is placed firmly at the center of the conflict in this book. I wouldn’t have a problem with that fact on its own if it wasn’t for this established history of using it for our two other main characters. It not only begins to feel a bit much, but Briggs is falling into the exact trap that McGuire and Gailey discuss in their pieces: that somehow rape and sexual assault are almost necessary traumas that female heroes must go through in the ever-chased goal of “character development” and “added depth.” And in Leah’s case, particularly, it almost seems to be used as a way to excuse her abusive treatment of Mercy in the past. The entire thing reads as lazy and uninventive at best and as exploitative at worst.

So, there you go. Another book in this series that’s hard to evaluate based only on the merits of the story itself, but instead gets stuck in challenging topics that outweigh much of the rest. At this point, I’m sure I’ll still continue to read this series if there are more to come. But I’m on high alert now with this author and if these topics continue to come up in this manner, it might be time to throw in the towel.

Rating 6: A solid story is marred by the unfortunate, recurring use of sexual assault as a character-building tactic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wild Sign” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on this funny-titled one: My Vampire Book Obsession Book Boyfriends

Find “Wild Sign” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Smoke Bitten”

Book: “Smoke Bitten” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen” and “Storm Cursed”

Review: This series has probably been the longest-running Urban Fantasy series I’ve read. With a series that has run for so long and includes so many books, it’s assumed that there will be highs and lows. There was a period a few books back that had me worried, with several underwhelming entries in a row. But the last one was super dark and very good, so it was with a refreshed interest in the series that I picked up this latest book. And while it wasn’t my favorite, it at least didn’t backslide into the low points that had come before.

All is not well for Mercy Thompson. Her husband, Adam, has been withdrawing from her for the last few months, clamming up when asked and shutting down the magical bond between them. On top of this, another werewolf pack is attempting to move in on their territory and the magical creator Underhill has created a doorway to her realm in Mercy’s backyard. And a door goes both ways, letting thins in…and out. Not a powerful magical creature is on the loose, taking over people and making them murder to fuel its terrible power. But so is the life of one Mercy Thompson: full of madness and danger. Will she, Adam, and their pack be able to tackle this most recent threat?

This book was kind of hit and miss. There were several things I really liked about it, and then some that I didn’t care for as much. For the positives, I like that we’re back to the trend of having Mercy as our one and only narrator. Some of the weaker installments were the ones that deviated from her and included POV chapters from Adam. He’s great as a romantic interest, hero type. But it was pretty boring being in his head. Mercy’s voice remains strong and compelling, lending needed animation to even the less exciting mysteries and villains.

I also really liked the action in this book. The fight scenes were fast and thrilling, and the aspects of the fight that existed on a more magical element were also interesting. I liked the increased exploration of how the pack’s bonds and Mercy and Adam’s bond work and affect each other. Mercy’s own background and heritage adds an extra level of interest into how she deals with magical threats and powers. There was also the return of a fairly beloved element of her magic, which was fun to see.

I also liked the story regarding Adam and the reasons behind why he was pulling away from Mercy. At first I was concerned that it was going to be some sort of silly melodrama, especially with the return of his ex-wife’s meddling early in the book. But luckily it went a different route and even tied back to some of the challenges that we know Adam has faced throughout his long life. There was also an unexpected sense of real danger to this particular problem. If anything, it was almost the bigger threat than the actual villain of the story.

And that I didn’t love as much: the main villain and the threat he/she/it presents. For one thing, I was able to very quickly guess who/what they were dealing with, which just made the delay for the final reveal to read as boring at best and frustrating at worst. It’s implied that Mercy figures it out around the time that I did, so at least it doesn’t dumb her down in the process. But I still felt like the build-up itself didn’t work and the story would have done better without it. A few more jokes and references would have been way more fun than the false tension.

There were also a few story elements and subplots that I didn’t think were needed. The book wasn’t super long, so maybe these were used just to pad out the wordcount. But I think that speaks to problems with the main plot that needed to be tweaked anyways. Not only did these subplots not add anything to the overall story, but they drained out some of the tension when they popped up again here and there throughout the story.

That said, I still enjoyed this book overall. It could be a bit slower than I’d prefer at times, but I still found the characters compelling, especially the evolving relationship between Adam and Mercy. Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this installment.

Rating 8: Not as good as the one that came before it, but still much better than the low-points of the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Smoke Bitten” isn’t on too many Goodreads lists, but it is on I checked it out of the library!

Find “Smoke Bitten” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

Find“Storm and Fury” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 1)”

52295766._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” by Sina Grace and Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Box, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Daphne Walters moves to Los Angeles and finds that the only ones who can help her find love and live life to the fullest are the ghosts of her new home!

In Los Angeles, finding an apartment is killer—unless you live with the dead. Daphne Walters moves to Los Angeles for her boyfriend Ronnie, ready to live her happily ever after. But when happily ever after turns into happily for a month, she’s stuck in a strange city with no friends, family, or prospects for fun. Desperate to escape the lingering ghost of Ronnie’s presence everywhere, Daphne sets out to explore the city—and ends up encountering ghosts of a more literal kind! Rycroft Manor is abandoned, beautiful, and haunted. Will the dead be able to help Daphne find the life she’s been missing in the big city? From GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) comes a story about learning how to make friends, find love, and live life to the fullest with a little help from some friends whose lives didn’t end at death. Collects Ghosted In L.A #1-4.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this graphic novel!

When the writing was on the wall about the social distancing measures we as a society would need to take regarding COVID-19, I knew that my library pile wasn’t going to sustain me through the long weeks of staying at home. So I hopped onto NetGalley and began to request books that captured my interest. One of those was “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol 1)” by Sina Grace. I saw a cute looking graphic novel style and the promise of ghosts, which was enough to pique my interests. What I got, however, was something more than I anticipated, and something that I ended up really enjoying.

For one, yes, we have a ghost story, people. I love a good ghost story, and it doesn’t even have to be scary for me to enjoy it. The ghosts in “Ghosted in L.A.” (for the most part) aren’t all that threatening, but have mysterious reasons as to why they have continued their afterlives in the abandoned Rycroft Manor. Before each chapter, we get a bit of insight into the backgrounds of each ghostly character, from ringleader Agi to kindhearted Bernard to toxic Maurice, which makes their interactions with Daphne more layered an interesting. It also means that they aren’t relegated to ghost sidekicks, and that we get to see their motivations and backgrounds. I am very interested in learning more about them, and given that we’ve discovered some pretty dark and even dangerous things about some, it makes me feel like there are no guarantees that these ghosts are all going to be the kindhearted roommates that Daphne wants.

But surprisingly, the aspect of this comic that I liked the most had less to do with the ghosts, and more to do with the coming of age journey that our protagonist Daphne is on. She’s an 18 year old who has followed her boyfriend to Los Angeles for school, but then finds herself single and in a city that she knows very little about. 18 is already a confusing and scary time, so this, of course, sets her on a path of making some questionable decisions, and having to contend with not always pleasant people who are going to be supportive of her. Daphne is definitely a flawed and sometimes frustrating character. Sometimes I wanted to shake her because she was being foolhardy or blissfully un-self aware, but at the same time I remember what it was like being an 18 year old in the middle of a huge identity shift. From problems with her standoffish and judgmental roommate to conflict with her at home best friend to trying to reconcile her newly single status (especially since her ex Ronnie is really a good guy), Daphne is all kinds of realistic and relatable. I find myself really wanting her to succeed, even when she’s being all kinds of unreasonable.

And finally, I really love the artwork. It’s upbeat and colorful, and all of the characters have their unique feels while still being very of the style at hand. Plus, I love the coloring on the ghosts, which makes use of the darker side of the color wheel without being limited to just different shades of grey.

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(source)

I really enjoyed “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 1)”, and I will definitely be on the look out for Volume 2!

Rating 8: A super cute and creative comic about finding oneself and ghosts, “Ghosted in L.A.” has a lot of potential to become a new favorite comic series of mine!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads list “Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Set in California”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat!

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