Monday, October 09, 2017

River of Teeth - Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth
Sarah Gailey
Tom Doherty Books

Alternate History

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s never been more true than now.  One of the great, unsung benefits to reading widely, in many different genres, is that you often learn about things that seem like they should be fiction, but are, in fact, true.  For instance:  back in the early 1900s, there was a serious meat shortage in the United States.  So, one enterprising Congressman from Louisiana came up with a truly unique plan.  He wanted to import herds of hippos into the American South.  The hippos would live in the swampy bayous, would eat a swamp plant that was a nuisance, and the people would eat the hippos.  This Congressman was clearly unaware that an angry hippo can move (and destroy) like a freight train, and snap a person in half with little to no effort.  The law never passed, of course, but if it had… well, if it had, this story might very well have happened.

This book tells the story of a ragtag bunch of misfits and mercenaries, hired by the government to clear feral hippos from a large section of the Mississippi River.  This section, called The Harriet, is a sort of no-man’s-land.  The feral hippos look at everything as food or enemy.  Pretty much in that order.  The leader of the group, Winslow Houndstooth, once had a hippo ranch.  He raised them; he loved them.  Then, his ranch was burned to the ground, hippos and all.  Winslow burns for revenge.  For himself, and for the animals who died so horribly.

To fulfill his contract, Winslow gathers his team:  Archie, a self-proclaimed “fat lady” and con artist extraordinaire; Hero, a demolition expert with a certain something extra; Cal, a former ranch hand, and degenerate gambler; and Adelia, the most dangerous killer known to anyone.   Of course, there are others whose interests run counter to the government’s.  Those others have a lot of money riding on their plans, and they intend to stop Houndstooth and his group by any means necessary.

This story is kind of a Wild West story, transplanted to the Old South.  With hippos instead of horses.  Here, hippos also serve as mounts and pack animals.  There’s humor, but there’s also a lot of unrepentant violence.  People die, horribly, no matter which side they’re on.  I’d go so far as to say that this story might not be for everyone, but if your mind is open enough to contemplate an alternate history, you’re probably going to enjoy this story of what might have been.

Rating: 8.5
May 2017

ISBN# 978-0-7653-9523-8 (trade paperback)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Drink Deep - Chloe Neill

Drink Deep
Chicagoland Vampires
Chloe Neill
New American Library


Note: If you haven’t read the first books in this series (SOME GIRLS BITE, FRIDAY NIGHT BITES, TWICE BITTEN, and especially HARD BITTEN) this review contains serious and unavoidable plot spoilers.  Proceed at your own risk.

Life has not been happy for the vampires of Cadogan House over the past couple of months.  Not only have they lost their Master, but the house is in a sort of receivership.  The Greenwich Presidium (GP), the body that oversees vampire affairs in Europe and America, has installed a receiver, Frank Cabot, in Cadogan House.  Frank is the worst kind of auditor: he’s never met a rule he doesn’t like, and he’s only too happy to impose new rules and restrictions, just to throw his weight around the place.  The resident vampires have no choice but to go along with his increasingly unreasonable demands; the GP will use his report to decide whether to disband the House.

There are even bigger problems in the natural world.  For instance, the fact that Lake Michigan has just gone from a normal body of water to an unmoving black mass.  Just for good measure, the same thing has happened to the river.  The humans of Chicago, most definitely including the new, not-supernatural-friendly mayor, immediately decide that the vampires are behind it.  Merit thinks it might be the river nymphs.  Turns out, the nymphs are devastated – and weakened – by the changes in the water.  It’s pulling magic from the world.  This cannot be anything good. 

In this installment, Merit is being pulled in every direction.  Her House is very much under attack by members of the GP.  The new mayor wants to institute a supernatural registration law.  Merit has been having nightmares involving Ethan.  Even Merit’s best friend, Mallory, is not herself.  She’s undergoing testing to become a sorceress.  The testing is so stressful that Mallory looks gaunt, shaky, and exhausted.  Facing all of this, Merit decides that the best thing she can do is to solve the biggest problem first: the weirdness of the lake and river.  Her investigation leads her through several supernatural creatures.  Some we’ve met before, and some are new, to Merit and to readers.  This installment is very fast-paced, matching the urgency of the issues faced by the characters.  One of the biggest upsides to reading this series late is that I don’t have to wait for the next book to come out; I’ll be starting it very soon!

Rating: 8
May 2011

ISBN# 978-0-451-23486-5 (trade paperback)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Whispers of Warning - Jessica Estevao

Whispers of Warning
A Change of Fortune Mystery
Jessica Estevao


Miss Ruby Proulx is settling in at her Aunt Honoria’s hotel in turn-of-the-century Old Orchard, Maine.  After a lifetime spent travelling with her father, a snake oil salesman in a medicine show, a stable home with a lock on a real door, seems like the ultimate luxury.   Her aunt, her mother’s sister, welcomed Ruby with open arms and heart, and installed Ruby in her mother’s old room.   For many years, Ruby has heard a ‘voice’ speaking in her ear, offering guidance and advice.  She kept that voice to herself, fearing that people would think her mad.  To her surprise, her aunt is thrilled with this information.  Honoria is well-versed in all things spiritual.  She has prophetic dreams; her sister had the same kind of ‘voice’ in her ear.  In order to compete with the surrounding hotels – which are larger and offer more amenities – Honoria has staffed her smaller Hotel Belden with Spiritualists to cater to her like-minded guests. 

It’s not spiritualism drawing a crowd to Old Orchard on this day.  Miss Sophronia Foster Eldridge is coming to town to give a speech.  Miss Foster Eldridge travels the country, speaking in support of women’s suffrage.  Ruby is surprised to see her friend, Officer Warren Yancey, already present at the gathering.  He’s worried about a riot; doubly so, since his mother and sister (Lucy, Ruby’s closest friend) are also in attendance.  Ruby thinks he’s overreacting until the shouting begins.  There’s a nasty exchange between Miss Foster Eldridge and a man in the audience.  Many men are unhappy about women agitating for the right to vote.  It seems personal to this man, Congressman Plaisted.  Shortly after that, the fruit begins to fly and Yancey is forced to clear the area. 

 Ruby feels uneasy about their guest.  The suffragist, who once ran a newspaper dedicated to that cause, spoke with true passion and zeal.  In the heat of the argument, though, Miss Foster Eldridge went into a trance on stage and channeled a spirit.  It seems an odd combination.  When Ruby asks about it, the suffragist explains that it’s really a way to hook the audience.  Spiritualism is very popular, and it draws more people to her speeches.  Even for someone who spent her life in a medicine show, this seems a bit mercenary.  Clearly, someone else agrees with Ruby’s feelings.  The body of Miss Foster Eldridge is found in a pool at another hotel.  She was bizarrely dressed in a man’s coat, the pockets filled with rocks.  It might look like suicide, except for the obvious head wound.

This series, beginning with WHISPERS BEYOND THE VEIL, is very unique in both setting and background.  I advise readers to check out the Historical Notes at the end of each novel.  As it turns out, Old Orchard is a real place.  The author did such a wonderful job of describing it that, when I saw old photos, the photos matched my mental images almost exactly.  Ruby is a heroine with a past.  That past very much informs her present, and her reactions to circumstances.  The relationships among the characters are complicated, layered, and long-standing, creating an involving group of characters.  The mystery plot is fascinating and involves not only the main characters, but also some machinations going on behind the scenes.  It’s quite realistic.  I’m already looking forward to more of Ruby, Honoria, and the Belden Hotel.   

Rating: 8.5
September 2017

ISBN# 978-0-425-28161-1 (trade paperback)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Whispers Beyond the Veil - Jessica Estevao

Whispers Beyond the Veil
A Change of Fortune Mystery
Jessica Estevao


Ruby Proulx has spent her entire life moving from place to place with her father as part of a medicine show in 1890s Canada.  Ruby knows that they’re con artists.  Her father, who drinks too much and spends every cent he makes, sells ‘miracle cures’ to marks, hoping to leave town before the scammed get wise.  To make a few extra cents, Ruby gives readings with her late mother’s tarot cards.  It’s not a particularly happy life.  Now, at age 20, a terrible incident forces Ruby to flee the medicine show.  In truth, she’s happy to leave.  She decides to travel to Old Orchard, Maine, to connect with her mother’s family.  She has only an old letter and a photo to help her find her Aunt Honoria.

A life lived in tents, sleeping on cots has not quite prepared Ruby for the Belden Hotel, run by Honoria.  But she’s quick to adapt.  And Honoria is beyond thrilled to have her there.  Honoria installs Ruby in her mother’s old room; kept just for her should she ever arrive.  The summer season is starting, and Honoria has hired several Spiritualists to remain in residence.  Spiritualism has captured the nation, and many guests have booked into the Belden for exactly this reason.  Including one Leander Stickney, a paranormal investigator.  He claims to be searching for legitimate practitioners (mediums, card readers, and the like) but, in truth, he spends much more time exposing and ruining those he deems frauds.  He suspects everyone and threatens to ruin Honoria’s hotel.  When his dead body turns up on the beach, it looks like he might get his wish.

The author excels at setting the scene.  Old Orchard is a real place, and you’ll feel that you’ve visited it as you read this novel.  Each character is finely drawn.  The Spiritualists are not just there for kooky effect.  Abilities run in Honoria’s family.  She hopes Ruby has them, too.  After her life as a con, Ruby is terrified that Honoria or the authorities will discover her sordid past.  She does hear a voice, from time to time, but fears that makes her crazy, not gifted.  Officer Yancey, a local police officer, has an innate distrust of all thing supernatural, and that extends, sadly, to Ruby.  He’s sure there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Watching Ruby work to become a member of the family, as well as a member of the hotel staff, all while trying to hide her very real secrets, is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking.  Honoria is a woman ahead of her time, too.  A woman who never married, who is determined to keep her family’s hotel running, would have been a rarity at the turn of the last century.  The mystery is seamlessly woven into this layered background.  Several people might have wanted Stickney to depart this world.  Uncovering the killer will take the combination of Spiritualism, and good old-fashioned police work.  As far as first installments in a new series go, this one is truly superior.

Rating: 8
September 2017

ISBN# 978-0-425-28160-4 (trade paperback)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Magic Strikes - Ilona Andrews

Magic Strikes
A Kate Daniels Novel
Ilona Andrews
Ace Books

Urban Fantasy/Dark Fantasy

Note:  If you haven’t read the first two books in this series (MAGIC BITES, MAGIC BURNS) this review contains unavoidable spoilers.

It’s been a rough few weeks for Kate Daniels.  She lives in Atlanta and works for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, a sort of supernatural rescue service.  This includes her current job, trying to talk a septuagenarian banshee down off of a public utility pole.  It’s after midnight by the time she gets home, but the day is not done.  She gets a call from Saiman, an unusually strong (and well-informed) magic user.  It seems that he has an unwanted guest in his apartment.  It’s Derek, a young werewolf, and Kate’s sometime sidekick.  Derek made the potentially fatal mistake of breaking into Saiman’s place, and Saiman would like Kate to retrieve him.  

Arriving at Saiman’s Kate learns that Derek broke in, looking for invitations to something called the Midnight Games, a sort of supernatural gladiator tournament.  The Games are illegal, but still extremely popular.  Saiman agrees to release Derek as long as Kate accompanies him to the Games.  He’d like her to use her expertise to check out a team called the Reapers.  He’s not sure what they are, exactly, or where they live, and that bothers him.  Once he’s free, Derek confesses to Kate that he wanted to get into the Games to get a message to a girl who works with the Reapers.  Two birds, one stone?  Maybe.  But Kate should know it can’t be that easy.

As usual, the author goes a great job of setting the scene.  The Midnight Games, the venue, the attendees and fighters, all leap off the page.  This installment does something a bit different, though, in that a later plot point is the near-deadly beating of one of the characters we’ve known since the first book.  The fate of this character is not certain, and drives the second half of the action.  That second half contains some great scenes as Kate continues to investigate the Reapers, and is forced to participate in the Games.  This brings up some pretty horrific memories for her; and also reveals some interesting facts about her friends.

This time around, we get to delve a little deeper into the underside of the magical world.  The Midnight Games were outlawed after a huge and dangerous participant went rogue.  Apparently, casualties outside the arena are not nearly as entertaining.  The Pack leader has forbidden his shifters from taking part in the games at all.  So, the organizers simply import shifter fighters.  It’s all very cold and calculated and based on a thirst for violence and the huge amounts of money to be made betting.  It’s probably cynical, but, to me, this whole enterprise showed that humans are more like the shifter and vampires and whatnot than we are different.

Rating: 8
April 2009

ISBN# 978-0-441-01702-7  (paperback)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Redzone - William C. Dietz

The Mutant Files, Book 2
William C. Dietz


Note:  If you missed the first book in this series, DEADEYE, this review will contain some minor plot spoilers.

Years ago, a serial killer called the Bonebreaker murdered Cassandra Lee’s father.  Her father was a cop; the Bonebreaker specializes in killing cops.  Now that Cassandra Lee (Lee) is a detective with the LAPD, it’s become her mission to bring the killer to justice.  And if she has to do it alone, on her own time, that’s fine with her.  She still lives in the apartment she shared with her dad.  One whole room is dedicated to the Bonebreaker investigation.  And the killer recently struck again, taking one of Lee’s superiors.

This latest murder has convinced the mayor and the LAPD chain of command that a task force needs to be started.  Far from being sidelined because of her personal involvement in the case, Lee will be front and center.  The killer knows her; wants to kill her.  She’ll be the public face of the investigation.  She’ll be bait.  Another team will shadow Lee and her team, protecting them from the killer they hope to flush out into the open.  Lee is more than ready for this.  And it will provide a great reason to avoid thinking about the letter from her mother.

Lee’s mother left her (and her father) when Lee was a child.  Responsibility wasn’t her strong suit.  Now, she’s written to tell Lee that she’s dying.  And she’d like to see Lee one last time before she goes.  Aside from all the emotional stuff, there’s a significant drawback to making the trip: Lee’s mother is living in the red zone.  The red zone is a space inhabited by those who were infected and mutated by the virus released into the world over three decades ago by a terrorist.  It not only changed the people; it changed the makeup of the world.  Los Angeles (and the rest of the west coast) is now a nation called Pacifica.  Going east, there’s a fairly large red zone, then the Republic of Texas.  It’s legal to travel there, but it’s a wild, dangerous, and potentially infectious place.

This is the second novel in this series (after DEADEYE) and it was interesting to see Lee explore the relationship with her parents a bit more.  The plotline of the Bonebreaker was introduced briefly in the first novel, but is much expanded here.  There are some scenes from his point of view, adding a nicely creepy vibe to the proceedings.  Again, the world-building is outstanding.  There’s enough of the ‘old’ world left for everything to be recognizable, but enough has changed/been destroyed that it’s sometimes jarring.  In the best possible way.  There are some great action set pieces, and the mystery plot is quite involving.  I’m hoping this series continues for many more books.

Rating: 8
August 2015

ISBN# 978-0-425-27334-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hard Bitten - Chloe Neill

Hard Bitten
Chicagoland Vampires
Chloe Neill
New American Library


Note: If you haven’t read the first books in this series {SOME GIRLS BITE, FRIDAY NIGHT BITES, and TWICE BITTEN) this review contains serious and unavoidable plot spoilers.

Merit has been a vampire for less than a year.  In that time, she’s been both embraced and betrayed by human friends; she’s helped to broker a fragile peace with the shifter community; and she’s been named Sentinel of her House.  Her relationship with Ethan, the Master of her House, and the vampire who turned her, has become infinitely more complicated lately.  And, since the shifters were essentially forced to go public recently, public opinion has taking a decidedly negative turn.  Taking a meeting with the Mayor of Chicago seems fairly tame in comparison.

The Mayor has heard a tale.  A tale of a vampire party, called a rave.  During that party, according to a witness, three human girls were brutally murdered by the vampires.  The witness is a criminal, though, and not terribly reliable.  Nevertheless, he orders Ethan and Merit to investigate the matter and, if they discover such activities are real, to put a stop to it.  As an added incentive, if they fail, the Mayor will execute an arrest warrant on Ethan.  The arrest of the Master of one of the three Houses of Chicago would be not only a pr disaster, but would bring the wrath of the Greenwich Presidium (GP), the governing body for vampire affairs.

As it happens, the leader of the GP, Darius, has just arrived in Chicago.  He thinks that the issue of raves (if they exist) is a problem for the human authorities; not something to concern the Houses.  If Ethan persists in meddling in this issue, Darius will put the House in receivership.  That means bringing in an outside person to dictate every decision, large and small, in an effort to put the House “back on track.”  Merit and Ethan agree: despite threats by Darius, the stories of out-of-control vampires need to be investigated, and the source of the behavior found and eliminated. 

The issue of the raves was touched on in the last book (TWICE BITTEN,) so it was good it see it developed here.  Merit, born in Chicago to a new-moneyed family, has a great many useful contacts to use in her investigation.  The search begins quickly, and is interesting.  The story bogs down in the first half of the book, with Merit repeating her findings to other characters.  Of course she has to tell them, but she’s relaying information already known to the reader.  It’s a bit repetitive.  In this case, a bit of patience bears great rewards.  The second half of the book – the end game, in particular – moves very fast, and contains many twists.  I expected almost none of it; and will begin the next book very shortly.  Well done, Ms. Neill! 

Rating: 8
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23332-5 (trade paperback)