Dead in the WestDead in the West, by Joe R. Lansdale

I’d recommend this wild west zombie story mostly for folks who enjoy horror. It doesn’t stand out to me as much as some of the other things I’ve read from Lansdale, but it’s short and strange and I’m on a big historical supernatural kick at the moment. I also liked that these are magic-based zombies, which seem underused compared with the kind that come from viruses or some other contamination. Yeah, they all still shuffle after your guts, but supernatural zombies often lend a kind of “defeat the evil” vibe. Sometimes that feels like a refreshing change of pace from the post-apocalyptic infected hordes that are all over the place now.

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerHold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride

When Sam learns that he has a secret, magical heritage, wackiness ensues. The characters and tone of this one are great, so it’s a must-read for YA fans. The romance explodes in intensity too quickly for my taste, and it skirts close to my pet peeve against supernaturally-induced making out. The rest of the book is cute enough that I’m overlooking that quibble. The chapter titles kept making me smile and hum the songs that they referenced, though most seemed more appropriate to someone my age than Sam’s. And the author gets bonus points for using a TMBG song.

Crucible of Gold (Temeraire, #7)Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik

So I mentioned I’ve got a historical supernatural fixation going on, right? I haven’t been thrilled with the last few entries in this series about dragons in the Napoleonic Wars, it started to feel like the plot was less of a concern than showing readers yet another new and exotic location. This book worked its way back to the larger story of the war though, and it gave me the feeling that the Lawrence and Temeraire World Tour of Being Treated Badly may be history. It was also much more fun than it’s last pair of predecessors, which always helps. When a series that I’ve loved starts to lose me, I always try to give it a few more books to pull me in again. This is the only case I can think of where that’s worked, and now I’m excited to read more of these.

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The RookThe opening words of this novel are, “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” That sentence, and the premise it delivers so well, hooked me from the start. The body in question belongs to Myfanwy Thomas, a young woman who was made aware that an unknown enemy will erase her personality, her memory, and her very identity, leaving a stranger in her body. That stranger, helped by detailed notes from her predecessor, jumps back into Myfanwy’s life in order to find the person behind the attack.

Pretending to be the Myfanwy that the world already knows is no easy task. That Myfanwy has a meek personality, an unusual ability that she hates to use, and a tendency to hide in the background. She administrates a division of The Chequy, a secretive government agency made to protect the United Kingdom from supernatural threats, and she has a great memory for small details about the history and workings of the organization. The new Myfanwy knows only what she finds in the notes and files that she’s been left, and while she has similar skills and tendencies, she shows a level of assertiveness that surprises her coworkers.

The New Myfanwy / Original Recipe Myfanwy divide could have gotten confusing fast, but it was handled well. We get to know the first woman only through her letters and other people’s recollections of her. Her writing style doesn’t always mesh with the shy, retiring person we’re told about. At first that seemed inconsistent, but then it left me with the impression that Myfanwy’s new personality was similar to how she might have been without the childhood trauma that she faced. I liked that the author put real effort into exploring Myfanwy’s identity issues rather than just using it as a hook for the story.

The setting hits a great balance between the bureaucratic realities of Myfanwy’s office and the strangeness the things they deal with, which is a relief considering that the other supernatural agency books I’ve read stray predictably into ridiculous levels of weirdness or Bond-film badassery. The people of the Chequy appreciate the seriousness of their responsibility, and I liked that Myfanwy always took a moment to think about the victims that her enemies left behind. The Chequy’s traditional, chess-based structure, full of overlapping responsibilities and outdated ideas, provides good opportunity for drama. Myfanwy’s colleagues were all interesting, and I was glad we got to know them a little.

The first third feels a little uneven, probably because it starts off with some really cool action and intrigue, and then we get a lot of Myfanwy reading letters. The letters were good moments for characterization and introspection, but they did get exposition-heavy as well. Things evened out once I got further into the book, and it couldn’t have been too terrible a drag on the pace considering that I devoured the whole thing in a couple of days. The placement and specifics of one letter made a final twist too obvious, though.

There were some fun moments, but the book sometimes felt like it was trying too hard in the comedy department. Character descriptions could also have been improved, it felt like we were too often told about people based on how attractive Myfanwy thought they were (and in what way).

The only thing that seriously bothered me was Myfanwy’s nasty tendency to be snippy about the looks of other women she met, to the point of making a mental joke about hoping one woman had slept her way to the top (presumably because she shouldn’t get to be both beautiful and good at her job). That line and several similar moments stood out, especially because the book was filled with competent, proactive female characters. Do super-powered secret agents really need to be so superficial and jealous of each other? It’s unlikeable and unnecessary and just plain yicky. Those bits were also among the very few moments that made me remember I was reading a male author writing from a woman’s perspective.

Despite my few issues, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an urban fantasy novel that avoids that cookie-cutter feel. I hope we get to read more about this world.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Interested in a Kate Daniels novella as a New Year’s treat? “Magic Gifts,” a Kate and Curran story, is available as a free e-book until January 7. You can download a Kindle-compatible copy, an epub for Nook or other e-book readers, or a PDF to read on your computer. The novella will be printed in the upcoming Andrea-centered book, Gunmetal Magic, for those who either don’t want an electronic copy or missed out on the limited-time free release.

Get it here:

http://www.ilona-andrews.com/magic-gifts/

One Salt Sea (October Daye #5)October Daye has faced a lot of challenges since recovering from the transformation spell that ripped her from her human family at the start of this series. Lately, though, she’s accepted new responsibilities, formed new friendships, and she’s even given romance another shot. But when a kidnapping threatens to spark a war between the land fae and their dangerous cousins from the sea, everyone that Toby cares about is in the line of fire. She’s got three days to find the missing kids in a maze of old enemies, confusing allies, and uncomfortable secrets, or else her people will be left to fight – and possibly die – in a war that they’re unlikely to win. Read the rest of this entry »

I haven’t watched a scripted show on MTV since the days of Daria, but this trailer for Death Valley caught my eye. They’re going for the horror/comedy thing, so I thought it might appeal to some of my fellow urban fantasy fans.

Death Valley premieres tonight on MTV at 10:30.

The ongoing Urban Fantasy series can be a mixed blessing. While it’s often great to revisit familiar settings year after year, each new entry runs the risk of steering a series in a direction I won’t enjoy. A series needs to stay fresh, but changes to character, situation, or style may disappoint me. I like each book to have its own contained story, but sometimes those get swamped by larger story arcs. Something interesting that I’ve learned about my own preferences is that romance plots are the thing most likely to sour me on a series.

Here’s the list of romance elements that bug me.

  • The Eternal Love Triangle
    Nothing makes me want to smack a heroine faster than when she spends six books trying to decide between suitors. No, honey, you can’t have them both, and if you try to then it kind of makes me think you’re a bad person. A love triangle needs to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Sudden Asshole Syndrome
    Don’t you hate it when an established love interest suddenly turns into a total jerk just to provoke a breakup or inject some drama? I hate it. I hate it a lot. Don’t spend a couple of books getting the main character to fall for someone only to have that person go from hero to jerk without warning.
  • Speed Dating
    Heroines who establish a pattern of changing their boyfriend more often than I clean out my fridge bother me. At some point it starts to feel like the author values the sexual tension more than the characters. The need to explode existing relationships also tends to lead to Sudden Asshole Syndrome.
  • Unnecessary Couple Fights
    Once a hero and heroine have settled into a relationship, they don’t need to constantly snipe at each other to keep things exciting. They can work towards different goals or argue over strategy, but conflict for conflict’s sake makes them both seem petty.
  • Supernaturally-Mandated Sex
    If the characters need to get their power-up from getting it on or develop some kind of mating urge, that tends to mean there’s some target number of bangs per book. Predictable, mechanical love scenes aren’t hot, and neither are the disturbing consent issues that often accompany sex magic. Stop making me worry that the protagonist is a rapist.

My final issue with romance in a UF series is trickier than all of those put together: it’s not uncommon that I just don’t like the turns a protagonist’s love life has taken. Maybe he ended a relationship that I wish he’d have continued, or she took back someone who did her wrong far too easily. Maybe the author wrote my favorite suitor out of the plot, or even worse, killed him off. Maybe I think someone involved in a love triangle picked the wrong person to be with.

As a reader, I love surprises. New obstacles, new antagonists, and new challenges are all great things. But there’s something to be said for not throwing a wrench into every romance. My favorite series novels, the ones that keep me eager for every new entry, are the ones that, in addition to exciting plots and compelling characters, also manage a sense of balance among the lives of their protagonists. If a heroine or a hero’s love life is constantly as chaotic as the danger they’re often in, it eventually makes them stressful to hear about, and that makes me less enthusiastic about spending my limited reading time with them.

Late Eclipses (October Daye, #4)Late Eclipses hits the ground running with a few shocking developments for our favorite changeling, October Daye, but then Toby’s immediately called to see a friend with a suspicious illness. As more fae fall victim to similar complaints, Toby fends off accusations and works to track down an old enemy. She’s caught up in a plot involvingĀ revenge, political power, and family intrigue, and not even her most formidable allies can help her with the difficult choice she’ll have to make.

Read the rest of this entry »