Friday, August 30, 2013

The Shadow Of The Soul - Sarah Pinborough

The Shadow Of The Soul
The Forgotten Gods: Book Two
Sarah Pinborough

Fantasy/Urban Fantasy

Obligatory “Book Two” Note:  It’s book two.  So, clearly, there are going to be spoilers here.  And, honestly, I’m not sure that you’d fully appreciate this one if you haven’t read the first book, A MATTER OF BLOOD, first.  So, go read the first book now.  This review will still be here when you’re done.

This novel picks up six months after the events of A MATTER OF BLOOD.  In that time, there’s been a lot of fallout for Detective Inspector Cassius Jones.  Exposing the corruption of so many police officers and their superiors has left Cass dealing with lawyers, distrustful colleagues, and the fact that he’s stuck on crap details most of the time.  Being sent to the scene of a suicide looks like just more grunt work.  The college student managed to thrust her arms through the television screen.  According to her boyfriend, she’d been muttering the same phrase over and over: Chaos in the darkness.

It seems open-and-shut until Cass talks to Asst. M.E. Eagleton, who tells him about several other suicides who left the same message.  No one knows what it means.  Cass agrees that the cases are linked somehow, but the dead students have nothing else in common.  Cass is also involved in the search for his missing nephew, sure that the mysterious and otherworldly Mr. Bright is involved in it.  His suspicions are confirmed when a lawyer delivers a sealed envelope, entrusted to him by Cass’ late brother.  Inside is one sentence: “THEY took Luke.” 

In a parallel storyline, Abigail Porter’s life is devoted to protecting the Prime Minister.  In fact, her life has narrowed down, emptied out, in recent years until her job is almost the only thing in it.  A series of explosions on a Saturday afternoon tear away the veneer of safety felt by London’s residents.  Afterwards, Abigail spots a strange figure in the shadows, watching her.  That same figure is captured by CCTV all over London, just before the bombings.  And he shows up again during a memorial for the dead.  Abigail, the only one to see him, chases him into an Underground station.  He says he knows she’s emptying, whispers a word, then jumps in front of a train.  Abigail’s world is changed just as surely as Cass’ world has been, but in a much different way.

This is the second installment of this series, set in near-future London, with the world on the brink of economic collapse.  The Bank owns just about everything.  Behind the Bank is a group called the Network.  Cass came into contact with them while investigating The Man Of The Flies, and knows there’s something ‘other’ about them.  Mr. Bright has clearly been involved in Cass’ life since before he was born.  He’s lost the rest of his family and many friends to the machinations of the Network, but still doesn’t quite understand what or who they are.  He almost doesn’t want to know; he fights against the knowledge, even as he searches for his dead brother’s missing son.  Somehow, that missing child seems to be the key to everything.
If you’ve read the first book (and I’d recommend it) you already know that Mr. Bright and his cohorts are something other.  This book gives a broadening view the Network, some of its inner workings, and how it controls life on a global scale.  The story drops hints about who they are and what their motivations might be, but leaves a lot of information in the dark.  The narration moves back and forth between Cass, Abigail, and Mr. Bright.  The author has created a world that looks familiar, yet is somehow alien.  The story is fascinating and compelling, and makes me hope the third installment is not far distant.  Cass is a flawed hero, as all the best heroes are, and I’ll eagerly follow him to the end of this.
Rating: 8 ½
August 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25848-4

Friday, August 23, 2013

Emperor Of Thorns - Mark Lawrence

Emperor Of Thorns
Book Three Of The Broken Empire
Mark Lawrence

Dark Fantasy
Note:  If you haven’t read the first two books (PRINCE OF THORNS and KING OF THORNS) in this series, then, really, where have you been?  If you prefer your fantasy light, populated by cute creatures, and right always winning the day, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Not that there’s anything wrong with light fantasy; but that’s just not what this series is.
For those who have read the first two books, but had to wait for this one, the author kindly includes the salient points up front in “The Story So Far.”  It’s enough to refresh memories and catch up with Jorg, now King of seven lands.  His story begins on his twentieth birthday, as the Gilden Guard march into his castle to escort him to Congression.  Congression is a once-every-four-years event in which the Hundred, rulers of each land, gather to attempt to elect an emperor.  With one vote per land ruled, it’s nearly impossible; and, indeed, there has not been an Emperor to unite the broken lands for too long.
Jorg has a plan to change that.  His plan has been laid over the course of years.  The story moves from Jorg today, to the Jorg of five years earlier, travelling through the lands.  What seems like an almost aimless series of adventures turns out to be so much more.  Among the many opposing him is the Dead King, a ruler who rose in the Drowned Isles, and who uses necromancers to blight those who would deny him.  One of these is Chella, a necromancer well known to Jorg.  Interspersed with Jorg’s story is Chella’s story.  On Jorg’s side (he hopes) are the long-dead Builders, who left their data-ghosts to guard their technologies.  The prize is the future of the broken empire and everyone in it.
I wouldn’t advise new readers to start here.  I’d advise you to start Jorg’s story with the first book.  There’s just so much that goes into making the character of Jorg, that I’m not sure newcomers will fully appreciate his attitudes or his decisions the way longtime readers will.  Even though he’s now married, a king, and an expectant father, Jorg is still one of the most compelling anti-heroes of fantasy fiction.  I’ve never encountered a character quite like him, and I doubt that I will again.  He’s that best of all things: a unique and believable creation.
As always, the author moves the story along through by moving the story back and forth through time.  Even at the end, there’s more to tell, more to learn, and another blow to be struck.  Through the author, Jorg is a master at turning a phrase.  Self-deprecation is a sharp edge with him, although his new maturity shines through.  He’s seen more of life than a twenty-year-old should, but this experience and his drive are what put him within reach of the emperor’s throne.  It’s never pretty, but his methods are undeniably effective.  These books remind me of why I love fantasy; and reading this book truly made me want to go back and start the series from the beginning.  This goes on the short list of series to be re-read, back-to-back, just to watch the story unfold again.
Rating: 9
August 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25685-5 (hard cover)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Death Al Dente - Leslie Budewitz

Death Al Dente
A Food Lovers’ Village Mystery
Leslie Budewitz
Berkley Prime Crime
Over a century ago, Erin Murphy’s great-grandfather opened the Mercantile (known as the Merc) as the town’s first grocery store.  Now Erin is back to manage the place, hoping to steer it out of some troubled economic waters.  Her plan is to make the place an “artisan market for local and regional foods.”  There are plenty of local producers of everything from grain to dairy to meats, and many locals put a gourmet spin on their offerings.  Erin’s mom, Fresca, is adding to the product line with her own handmade pastas and sauces.
It’s the start of summer, and tourism is just starting to pick up.  Erin’s plan for a Festa di Pasta is in full swing.  It’s a weekend of food-centered parties, starting at the Merc.  During last-minute preparations, Erin runs into Claudette.  Claudette used to work at the Merc with Fresca, until she ran off to Vegas with the town’s resident (married) Elvis ‘tribute artist.’  Months later, the pair returned, ‘Elvis’ to his wife, and Claudette to try and re-start her life.  Rumors are swirling that some of Fresca’s recipes were stolen from Claudette.  Eager to make peace, Erin invites Claudette to the Festa.  What no one expects is to find Claudette in an alley, dead.  It seems impossible, with all the preparations going on, that no one heard or saw anything.  And, with suspicion pointing at her mother, Erin wants to find the truth.  Along the way, she finds that there are things simmering under the surface in even the nicest of towns.
Far too often, series like this are set in a too-perfectly-twee-to-be-true place.  Jewel Bay may sound like one of these places, but we very quickly see that this is a small town inhabited by real people.  There are realistic problems, realistic concerns, and very realistic characters.  Erin is a woman trying to adapt her family’s business to keep pace with the times.  She’s a daughter trying to protect the mother she knows is innocent.  And she behaves like a rational adult would.   She suggests hiring a lawyer, then she starts working the town network to try to figure out what really happened, all while keeping her business (which impacts a lot of suppliers and their businesses, too) a going concern.
The plot is effectively layered and nicely twisty, with several interesting subplots playing out over the course of the book.  There are plenty of potential suspects, and some of them even act suspicious.  Some of the storylines stretch back years, and Erin discovers, as most adults do, that no matter how old you are, your mom wants to protect you from unpleasantness.  That makes the investigation more difficult and makes the characters that much more believable.  The author clearly loves food, and her Montana home, and presents them both in a wonderful way.  There are recipes included, too.  Montana, Jewel Bay, and the Merc are fascinating places, and I look forward to my next visit.
Rating: 7 ½
August 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25954-2 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cloche And Dagger - Jenn McKinlay

Cloche And Dagger
A Hat Shop Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime

Scarlett Parker has been hiding in her apartment for the past few days; ever since a video of her went viral.  She had the misfortune to ‘crash’ a party thrown by her boyfriend.  Even more unfortunately, that boyfriend was throwing the party for his wife.  Cake-throwing was involved, and now anyone with internet access can see Scarlett’s worst life moment.  So, when her cousin, Vivian, calls from London and suggest a long-overdue visit, Scarlett jumps at the opportunity.

Arriving in London, Scarlett is dismayed when Vivian doesn’t meet her.  Instead, Harrison Wentworth, a man who has mixed memories of Scarlet from her many childhood visits, meets her.  Once she sees Mim’s Whims, her grandmother’s hat shop (now hers and Vivian’s) Scarlett wonders why she ever left.  The shop has been there for decades, and caters to the upper class and titled ladies.  When one of those ladies – a countess – is discovered murdered and wearing nothing but a custom-created hat, Scarlett’s problems get real in a hurry.  Apparently, the still-missing Vivian had a thing with the husband of the dead woman, and the authorities and gossip writers find it oh-so-convenient that she’s nowhere to be found. 
This is the first in a new series, and promises some light, frothy fun.  The London hat shop is a new and interesting venue, with plenty of customers and neighbors to provide fodder for further tales.  The author goes a little heavy on the English expressions at the outset, but that gets toned down fairly quickly.  Of course there’s the threat of an incipient romance with Harrison, although Scarlett’s mother astutely observes that a woman pushing thirty who’s never been single for more than a couple of weeks might benefit from a little solitude.  The mystery wraps up quickly, but very dramatically.  All in all, this is a solid introduction to a likeable cast of characters. 
Rating: 7
August 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25889-7 (paperback)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Thousand Names - Django Wexler

The Thousand Names
Book One Of The Shadow Campaigns
Django Wexler
Fantasy/Flintlock Fantasy

So this is flintlock fantasy?  I like it!  I like it a lot, actually.  And so will you.
The country of Khandar just had a civil war.  The Redeemers, a sect of warrior-priests, overthrew the prince and sent him running for the coast, under the protection of the Vordan army.  The Vordan King promised to protect Prince Exopter, Chosen of Heaven, and restore him to his throne.  This is easier said than done, of course.  As the story opens, what’s left of the Vordan army is encamped in a crumbling ruin called – by someone who clearly doesn’t understand the reality of the situation – Fort Valor.  Under the command of Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, they’re waiting for reinforcements and a new colonel to arrive from across the sea.  In the meantime, they have to be on the lookout for incursions by the Desoltai, raiders from the surrounding desert, led by the mysterious Steel Ghost.  For these men, living to see tomorrow is a victory.
Marcus is more than happy to turn over command to the new colonel.  But when he arrives, Count Colonel Janus seems more interested in the indigenous flora and fauna than in military strategy.  Instead of ordering everyone onto the ships and back to Vordan, Janus orders the army (now made up of the Colonials who have been in-country for a few years and the newly-arrived and poorly-trained recruits) to pack up and march back to the capital city.  Since they barely made it out the first time, most of the Old Colonials are less than happy about this.  Blending the recruits and the veterans means promoting a few of the lower-ranking veterans.  One of these is Winter Ihernglass.  Winter is horrified to be promoted to sergeant, since all Winter wants to do is blend in and be invisible.  Winter is a female, hiding in the army, on the run from events back home.  So far, she’s kept her secret, and being in command could compromise that.  She’s also not at all sure that she’s capable of a command position.

The above is just the bare-bones outline of the beginning of the story.  This novel is really character-driven, with a military and magic background.  I wasn’t sold on the idea at first, but it all blends into a unique whole.  The author writes about military life both on micro and macro levels.  There are so many details, so much to deal with to move an army and the attendant wagon train that contains civilian followers.  Then there are the battles.  They’re terrifying and completely realistic.  Watching each character deal with various situations made them seem completely human.  I admit that I dawdled while reading this novel because I just didn’t want it to end.
The last fifty or so pages changed all that.  There’s a ‘final battle,’ for want of a better term that had me absolutely glued to the story.  At that point, the muskets meet the magic, new elements come into play, and there’s no telling what will happen from moment to moment.  It’s written from different character perspectives, in overlapping time, making each minute seem both infinite and fleeting.  For readers who worry about committing to a new series (but you should; you really should) this story is complete within itself.  Clearly, there’s more to come, more than must be done, but this could be read as a standalone novel.  No cliffhanger ending, just looking forward to the next phase.  This is a truly amazing debut novel from a major new talent, and it goes straight to the keeper shelf.
Rating: 9
July 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-46510-8 (hardcover)