Urban Fantasy Book Review: Broken Realms

Broken Realms is a fast-paced Urban Fantasy by D.W. Moneypenny, a former journalist who currently lives in Portland, Oregon. It’s the first installment in the five-part Chronicles of Mara Lantern series.

The book opens with Mara Lantern (our reluctant protagonist) arguing with a good friend about her younger brother’s insistence on using an old cell phone to make believe communication with their dead father. Mara is a gadget whiz, a grease monkey who delights in older technology with all its moving parts despite the current era’s determination to march toward the future.

She boards a plane heading back home to Portland and things get…weird. Flashing blue lights, sudden altitude change, rapid shifts in the other passengers, and then she’s faced with a clone of herself carrying a glowing blue object. This other self is pursued by a teenage boy trying to talk her down from using said object for purposes we don’t find out until far later. Mara reaches out and touches her other self, an explosion happens, and suddenly she awakens on the side of the river with passengers from the flight all floating around her.

No casualties. The press hails it as a miracle, but all is not as it seems. Here we meet our next set of protagonists, two investigators trying to solve the mystery of the plane crash. I can’t get too deep into their plotline in my synopsis or I’ll end up entering spoiler territory, but suffice to say their scenes generate conflict and intrigue when we do get them, as they suspect Mara of being the cause of the explosion.

The author’s writing style is clean and functional, descriptive when he needs to be and passable when he doesn’t. I live in the Pacific Northwest region and have visited Portland many times. He captures the feel of the city quite well and I enjoyed that aspect of the story. The side characters Ping and Sam (again, spoilers if I get too deep into their identities) ended up being far more interesting and believable than the protagonist.

Her character arc centers around accepting that the Universe is bigger than she is, and that she has near god-like powers to shape it. During the first half of the book her doubt is believable, but as the story goes along, I found myself more annoyed and disbelieving than tense when she continued to refuse to accept the truth before her eyes until the VERY end. The side characters and fantastic world building carried me through, but I’d be lying if I said the tension in the story had anything to do with the protagonist’s fate toward the end.

3.5/5, I borrowed the next two and plan on reviewing them. If the series doesn’t get any better, I’ll probably drop it.

Weird Western Book Review: Coilhunter

Coilhunter is a Weird Western by prolific indie author Dean F. Wilson. It’s the first in his Coilhunter series. The third book just came out last week, and all three are on Kindle Unlimited as of this writing. I plan on reviewing all three for reasons you’ll see below.

The story opens with a scene familiar to devotees of spaghetti Westerns. A lone lawmaker, made steampunk by the presence of an air filtering mask, waltzes into a saloon where a group of men are busying themselves with a poker game. He’s looking for an outlaw, and his mere presence strikes fear into the hearts of all four men. What follows is a quick action sequence where the Coilhunter showcases his gun-toting prowess and brings the body into the lawman’s office, only to find that his usual payment officer has disappeared.

This leads him to hunt down the people who murdered his friend…and eventually the people who murdered his family.

The writing style is a bit distant and many of the scenes felt ripped from the movies rather than realistic, but this is often the case for modern Westerns and Weird Westerns in particular, so I didn’t let it bother me too much. That said, some segments (particularly in the beginning) got a little tell-y, and I didn’t feel like I really sank into Nox’s point of view fully until around a third of the way through.

The world is rich and imaginative. Creatures encountered in the mines and through the desert on Nox’s journey felt threatening and (mostly) realistic, and even the minor characters were engaging and interesting. Dean’s real talents showcase themselves in dialogue. For a “man of few words,” Nox ends up speaking with others quite a bit, and his tongue-in cheek wit and no-nonsense approach to being his own lawman won me over by the end.

The greatest weaknesses in the piece came in toward the beginning and end. The opening tone was distant and as mentioned previously, I had a bit of a hard time sinking into the story until deeper in than I would’ve liked. The ending felt quite rushed and the final scene felt a little cliche, though I’m still interested in seeing where the series ends up going as a whole.

All and all an entertaining read.

4/5, I’ve already borrowed the next two and plan on reviewing them sometime next month.

Urban Fantasy Book Review: Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles Omnibus

This is technically a review of three books by Rebecca Chastain, Magic of the Gargoyles, Curse of the Gargoyles, and Secret of the Gargoyles, all of which are packaged together in this bundle. I happened to pick it up for $0.99 on Kindle during a sale, so I definitely feel I got my money’s worth overall. I had varying opinions on each of the three books, and as such will handle each separately in this review.

Magic of the Gargoyles opens with a mid-level Earth Elemental (which took me a bit to figure out that by “elemental” the author meant magician, but we’ll get to that) named Mika Stillwater trying to repair some quartz containers for a demanding client. She has an unusual talent with quartz for someone at her power level, and manages to repair them perfectly despite most humans with talents similar to hers being unable to do that quality of work. Just as she’s sinking into the work, a beautiful panther gargoyle kit comes dashing into her home, thinking she’s a gargoyle and can help her save her friend.

She follows the kit and witnesses a terrorist act involving a fire gang that never shows up again, fueled by the life energy of the gargoyle’s littermate. This propels her into an action-packed (albeit brief) adventure in which she must rescue the rest of the litter from a wayward magician who auctions them off to the highest bidder. The worldbuilding is fantastic, as is the pacing. Her writing style is clean and readable, performing exactly as much as it needs to in order to get the story going. 5/5, it’s what led me to binge the next two books.

Curse of the Gargoyles opens up with the same client livid that her bottles weren’t finished, and one of the littermates from the first book has taken up residence in Mika’s apartment. She’s become a psuedo-celebrity as a gargoyle healer, and has taken up additional work along those lines. Soon she gets a call from the police department informing her that someone has begun insane experiments using gargoyle life energy again, this time involving separating the elements from inside the gargoyle’s bodies in defiance of nature.

This book spent more time working on defining the parameters of the magic system used in Chastain’s world, and although there was some character development and some fantastic descriptions, I didn’t find myself near as invested in the conflict in this second book. There was tension and danger, but the pacing felt off and most of the story felt like it was the same problem over and over again, more intellectual than emotional. 3/5. I still loved the characters from the first book, so I kept reading in the hopes things would get better.

Secret of the Gargoyles opens with the mystery presented at the end of Curse about a sleeping sickness that many humans had taken to be a part of the Gargoyle life cycle. After the dragon gargoyle who became her companion permanently at the end of Curse vouches for her in the presence of the mate to a sleeping gargoyle she attempts to heal (that was a mouthful), she’s declared a Gargoyle Guardian and given the secrets to eternal gargoyle life and healing, which the gargoyles deliberately kept hidden from all humans for millenia.

Mika enlists the help of one of her friends from the police force, a fire elemental she has a huge crush on but won’t admit her feelings to because she feels he’s out of her league, on a quest to delve into a dangerous area of wild magic where the key to healing the sick gargoyles lies.

This book had far better pacing than Curse, but didn’t quite live up to the potential in Magic. Chastain spends far too much time on the romantic subplot and not quite enough on the plot-plot for my tastes, though the climax and denoument were quite satisfying and in my opinion worth the wait. 4/5 stars, though I’m not sure how necessary Curse is to read in order to get here. I feel it could’ve been shortened to novella length or skipped over in favor of Magic straight into Secret.

4/5 overall for the series. I might check out the prequel/side story involving Mika’s best friend once she gets a few more books out. Not bad for $0.99.

Science Fiction Book Review: Reenu-You

Disclaimer: I made the acquaintance of Michele Berger through the Fighting Monkey Press private author group on Facebook. I will assure you this did not affect my review, however, and she didn’t send me the book for review. I bought it because I was interested in the concept, and I was not disappointed.

All right, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, Reenu-You is a powerful post-apocalyptic alternate history hard sci-fi novella (man that’s a mouthful!) about a group of five women of color who each use a new, “natural” hair care product to relax their hair straight without needing additional products. Things turn for the worse when they each contract a nasty skin condition. The first protagonist we’re introduced to, Kat, is an African-American ski instructor who is introduced to the product by her best friend and cousin. She uses it and finds it works–but shortly afterwards discovers an awful skin rash that spreads in rings from the middle of her head.

After she goes to the doctor and is told they can’t help her (which is a brutally painful scene to read, as Berger does a fantastic job of capturing both the sexism and racism felt by minority women seeking any sort of medical help), she heads to the Center for Disease Control and is put in a room without being informed that she and the other five women in said room are under quarantine. This is where we meet Constancia, our other POV protagonist, a Puerto Rican woman obsessed with her appearance and who carries the painful burden of a troubled home life and rough relationship. She feels the only thing she has in life is her looks, so when the terrible affliction takes them away from her, she’s left emotionally decimated and lashes out on Kat in particular for her perceived “superiority complex.”

Berger does a fantastic job of developing both protagonists and their relationships to each other and the other three women they’ve come into unwitting contact with. The struggle for identity as a person of color with “white” interests is also well developed in the case of Kat, as is the struggle to relate to others of the same race when most of the character’s life has been spent around people of the dominant race. Hair is indeed political, and the idea that a hair care product was “dumbed down” in name in order to seem more “Ethnic” after a once POC-owned company was purchased by a predominantly white pharmaceutical firm was a nice touch, although disheartening in how realistic it was.

Her style is highly readable and I found myself binge-reading the book within a few hours of picking it up. Given how much I read these days, this is a rarer and rarer thing.

5/5, well worth your time and attention.

Fantasy Book Review: The War Ender’s Apprentice

The War Ender’s Apprentice is the first book in the Chronicles of the Martlet series by Elizabeth Guizetti, and also the self-professed first novella by the author.

It stars three main characters. The majority of the book is in the point of view of Alana, the Martlet (third born noble elf) in House Eyreid and aging War Ender for the mysterious Guild. The story opens with her and the soon to be second protagonist Roark, her nephew, on a ship carrying slaves from her own lands. The Guild contract was simply to collect a debt, and policy dictates that she must obey the laws in the country she takes the contract in, but her oaths as a Martlet overwhelm the Guild rules in her mind, so she rescues the slaves and releases them.

Among them we meet our third protagonist, Eohan, whom Alana sees in a vision as being key to Roark’s future within their noble family. She takes him as an apprentice, and soon they’re assigned a war to end.

Without giving too much more away, the war ending portion that follows is where the novel really shines. Guizzetti’s skill as a world builder is top notch. Even though the hierarchy systems (and the politics between her various races) are complex and unique, she works enough explanation through action and character thought that I was able to follow, without having to resort to the oh-too-familiar info-dumps commonly found in epic fantasy novels. Each of her races felt specifically unique to her work, and the brief encounters with blood magic and magic involving the afterlife gave me a taste of what could potentially follow in the rest of the series.

Her non human characters also felt non-human, as opposed to being some exaggeration of human qualities or race relations masquerading as characters. This is a bugbear of mine in epic fantasy, and I’ve only seen it done right in a handful of books. This is one of them.

The e-book’s formatting was a little rough, and in some places the chapter breaks didn’t fall where they needed to, but the storytelling was compelling enough that I perked an eyebrow and moved on.

4.5/5, looking forward to the next book in the series.

Chick Lit Book Review: Lightweight

Occasionally I get overwhelmed by the barrage of post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and generally dark fiction that has flooded Kindle Unlimited these days. Not that it’s a bad thing. Far from it. The cultural climate is ripe for the picking for authors who are good and bringing societal themes to the forefront and playing off their audience’s fears. But sometimes, I just need a break.

That’s why I picked up Kirsty McManus’s Lightweight, an adorable humorous romance set in Australia. Kirsty is an Aussie herself, so that makes sense. I just wanted to add the setting was part of the draw for this book, because a lot of Chick-Lit is set in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. At least, a lot of the KU fiction I’ve read.

Lightweight stars the recently single Isla Greenwood, who discovers in the opening chapter that her jerk ex, Guy, has posted the only nude photo she’s ever allowed anyone to take on a revenge porn site. Things haven’t been so great for her since they broke up, and she’s taken to food to soothe her aching heart–and deal with most of her problems. After discovering just how far she’s let herself go, she enlists the help of her cousin Grace, a supermodel, to whip her back into shape.

Grace goes through her kitchen and tosses out everything she considers not food (which, according to Isla, is just about everything in her kitchen) and puts her on a strict exercise plan at her gym, Aero. During a hot yoga session, Isla stumbles out of the room and passes out from heat exhaustion, and is rescued by her soon-to-be new crush, Wes. Wes just so happens to be a personal trainer at a competing gym. Thus begins Isla’s weight loss (and romantic) journey through the novel.

It’s told in an entertaining, first-person conversational style, which I really appreciated for its easy readability. Isla drowns in a great deal more self hatred than I would’ve liked at the beginning, but she recovers and finds motivations beyond simple weight loss–and her crush–for continuing her fitness journey. I also liked that the author did a bit of research, and other than some questionable supplements peddled by Grace, seems to know what she’s talking about when it came to nutrition and exercise science. I also liked the exploration of gym culture and motivation, as well as the fact that not everyone gets a full happy ending by the end.

The humor was a definite selling point. I found myself chuckling out loud more than once during a before-bed reading session, much to the puzzlement of my partner lying next to me. All in all, it was a quick and fun read. Just what I was looking for on Kindle Unlimited at the time

4.5/5 stars, well worth picking up if you like light romance or chick-lit.

Science Fiction Thriller Book Review: City of Ice and Dreams

City of Ice and Dreams is the second full length novel and third book overall J. G. Follansbee’s Tales of a Warming planet series. Like the first two, it’s an ecologically themed science fiction thriller, though I’ll argue this one is a little more like Mother Earth Insurgency than Carbon Run. You can check out my reviews of the first two books here and here.

The novel stars three main characters in typical Follansbee style. We open with Sento, an woman who has lost most of her identity prior to boarding the now sinking ship Kildare. Over half the people on the ship with her die, and she barely makes it to the Antarctic shore with a small group of other inmigrantes, or immigrants. They’re all following rumors of a hidden paradise city known as Isorropia, Greek for balance.

Further in, we meet Artemis (nicknamed Artie), a “feral” who is tracking Sento for an unknown patron who has agreed to support him despite banishment from the (now confirmed to be real) city.

And our third protagonist is Elita Soares, daughter of the former First Citizen (elected representative, like a president) of Isorropia Ben Soares. She’s embroiled from the beginning in a debate about whether or not Isorropia should accept the pilgrim group Sento accompanies into the city, or whether they should turn them back for the sake of preserving balance. Balance, in this case, is the perfect balance of human input and output on the environment, something deeply ingrained in Isorropian culture.

The theme of balance, human ecological imperative versus the need for human survival versus human greed, is well developed throughout the book. Follansbee does a good job of balancing the various points of view, though much like in Carbon Run, his most powerful female protagonist, Elita, ends up coming off as selfish and a bit flat. I found his display of her relationship to her consort, Lucius, a bit distasteful. It’s similar to the criticism I had of the mother from Carbon Run: sex isn’t the biggest way women exert power, and her near slave-like control of Lucius through most of the book left a bad taste in my mouth. However, I will concede that she’s a much more well developed character than the woman from Carbon Run.

The majority of the book is from the much more engaging Sento’s point of view, so I can forgive it a bit more than with Carbon Run.

The vivid descriptions of both the city and Antarctica captured my imagination. I found myself tense and strained throughout the book, though I didn’t devour it quite as quickly as Mother Earth Insurgency. Follansbee’s talent for showcasing humanity’s spirit—and its demons—definitely shows through in the third volume.

I will say, I’m finding it hard to place the books on a coherent timeline. I didn’t find one in the book and I’m not sure if there is one on the website. It would be really helpful in placing why disidentification erases the memories of its victims in City of Ice and Dreams, but not in Carbon Run.

4.5/5 stars.

Psychological Thriller Book Review: Shadows in the Water

Continuing on with my journey checking out the other authors in the Strong Woman/Thriller giveaway, I picked up Shadows in the Water by Kory M. Shrum. It features a strong female protagonist by the name of Louie Thorne, who we see disappear into her bath through her mother Catherine’s eyes in the prologue.

Fast forward several years in the coming chapters, and Lou’s parents became victims in a drug war and Lou didn’t take it so well. She gets her kicks by exacting revenge against the Martinelli crime family, who sent the men after her father in an attempt to stop him from busting them. The “disappearance” of her youth, as we find out, actually was the manifestation of a terrifying power, which she calls “slipping.” She can do it in shadow and move all through our world, anywhere where very little light touches.

But when she goes through water, she re-emerges in the surreal (and dangerous) La Loon, the dumping ground for her crimes.

Except there’s more to the story, of course. Because Lou isn’t the only one with the power to slip. Her aunt Lucy also has the ability, and before his death, her father Jack tried his damndest to send Lou to her in order to save her from herself. Or at least teach her how to control her powers.

Lucy is afraid of Lou’s growing coldness and the comfort Lou gets from murdering people. She sends Lou to visit an old flame, Detective Robert King, in an attempt to tame her niece’s wayward tendencies.

Together, she and King find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving Senator Graham, a serial murderer who sent countless girls to their deaths aboard his ship.

Lou is a fascinating character not unlike the hard-boiled detectives of old. I found myself relating to her despite the obvious squeamishness of her…hobbies. We’ll call them hobbies. That said, sometimes I found her responses to those around her, particularly Lucy, a bit bothersome. She comes off as very selfish toward the beginning, though we do see some growth by the end.

Shrum’s prose is quick, decisive, and easy to read, and her descriptions are beautiful. I never once found myself lost in a scene, and I admire the way she choreographed the fight scenes and made use of Lou’s fascinating power. I found myself bingeing through until the end, something not so common for me in the thriller genre and especially so for a book that’s over 500 pages long.

4.5/5 stars, am looking forward to checking out the rest of the series.

Psychological Thriller Book Review: Nightmares of Caitlyn Lockyer

Early last month I teamed up with 42 other authors to help organize a giveaway for fiction with strong female protagonists, particularly focused on strong women in Action and Thriller genres. The genius behind the giveaway, Mark Tiro, deserves most of the credit.

In good faith, I picked up a few of the books in the giveaway to see which I’d like and could recommend, and Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer by Demelza Carlton was one of the ones that really stuck with me.

The premise alone had me hooked. Nathan Miller, who works for an unspecified quasi-government intelligence agency, witnesses violence against and the dumping of Caitlin Lockyer’s unconscious body on a beach in Australia. She half wakes up and begs him not to leave her, and he promises he’ll be there when she wakes up. The police suspect he may have been involved with her kidnapping, but hospital staff can’t get her to calm down without him, so he’s allowed to stay with her in her room until she wakes up.

Every night, she awakens him with screaming and horrifying mumblings about her time while kidnapped by an also unnamed terrorist organization.

By the end of the book I felt I was left with more questions than answers regarding Nathan himself, but the characterization and relationship development between Nathan and Caitlin made up for the slightly unsatisfying ending. It’s the first in a trilogy, and in the second book the teaser says Caitlin gets to speak for herself, so we’ll see if that helps answer any of the cliffhanger questions left at the end of this book.

The only major criticism I have of the book is that large parts of it felt a little devoid of initial setting, though there are some very well described scenes through the middle and end. It wasn’t a HUGE issue because the dialog was sharp and the emotion raw through the whole length, so I ended up finishing it in a single setting.

4.5/5 stars, I plan on picking up the other two soon.

Science Fiction/Thriller Book Review: Carbon Run

When I purchased the first full length novel in the Tales from a Warming Planet series, Carbon Run, I expected it to pick up where The Mother Earth Insurgency had left off.

Instead, I was greeted with an entirely different story, though I’m not sure how distant from one another on the time-line the two books are as the details like dates are fairly hazy. That said, this was just as much a thriller, although a more complex one.

We open in the point of view of our first protagonist (there’s five throughout the book), Anne Penn, the daughter of farmer and climate policy skeptic William Penn, as she examines a nest from a highly endangered species of magpie. She receives a text message from her father telling her she needs to return home immediately, and does so only to discover her childhood home burning down.

The fire was caused by faulty wiring. Her family isn’t the most well off, and after her mother, Molly Bain, abandoned them her father had to resort to illegally burning oil fuel to keep the house afloat. Although he wasn’t doing so here, when the firefighting bots finally arrive enough damage has been done to the trees and nearby nests that William is arrested and charged with species extinction.

At this point we shift to William (Bill) Penn’s point of view, and a judge allows him to stay at home pending trial. The officer who arrested him, future point of view character Kilel, defies the judge’s orders and attempts to arrest him by coercing a bus driver into assisting her. He escapes, and spends the rest of the story on the run.

And here we meet our fourth protagonist, Martin Scribb. A convicted felon who played a major role in the climate event known as the Spike, he’s recruited by a mysterious Colonel to a special mission to capture Molly Bain. Forced to give up his place in a climate monastary he’d called home for several years, he’s sent on a collision course with the rest of our heroes.

I can’t go too much further than to mention that an oil smuggling ring and deep governmental intrigue involving the Bureau of Environmental Security unfolds as the story goes on.

We get a few chapters from Molly’s point of view as well, though I have to say out of all the characters she was the least developed. She transitioned from being one of the greatest AI programmers in history to being a high class hooker attempting to normalize humanity’s oldest profession and provide some protection to her employees – as well as finding a future for herself. One would think that would make her a complex and intriguing character, but she ends up coming off as incredibly selfish and somewhat one-note, especially because her motives for leaving her family are expressed as “I couldn’t be a mother and I didn’t want to.”

I’m all for women’s choice, but the callousness with which she treats her family and the decisions she makes at the end of the book left a bad taste in my mouth.

That said, the rest of the characters are complex and fascinating, especially Anne. The ending ties all the storylines nicely together, and the comeuppance for the main two villains is fitting and satisfying. For the most part the author maintains a neutral stance through the book on the BES and other contentious points between the characters, though in the end, the BES is made out to be significantly less heroic than one would imagine under the circumstances.

The themes of human greed and self preservation trumping the best interests of the species ring through as strongly in this piece as the last one, and the thematic scenes regarding family, bonding, and being remembered are also well developed throughout the book.

I dinged the book one star because of Molly’s flat character development and because of how rushed parts of the ending felt, but overall it was a satisfying read and I look forward to picking up City of Ice and Dreams when it comes out.

4/5 stars, looking forward to the third installment.