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Class-Action Vampires

Author of "Civil Blood" (2018), contributor to numerous video games, infrequent blogger at www.christopherhepler.com. I like thrillers, urban fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional thematic point about human nature.

Celebrating 2400 Years of Fanfic -- The Trojan Epic: Posthomerica

It has always irritated me that the narrative of the final days of Troy wasn't actually in the Iliad or the Odyssey. I was a mass-market-mythology lover who didn't want to take that extra step of taking classics courses or learning Greek or Latin. Due to the loss of several Trojan Cycle manuscripts (the Little Iliad, Aithiopis, etc.), audiences never got to see Helen and Menelaos reconcile. The death of Achilles? The death of Paris? The wooden horse? Nope. And champions like Memnon, Penthesilea, and Neoptolemos were relegated to a couple of paragraphs here and there in English-language collections of the myths. (Hat tip to Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths," Gustav Schwab's "Gods and Heroes," and David Kravitz's "Who's Who In Greek and Roman Mythology," which were all excellent starting points and found in superstores during my early adulthood.)

Wait no more. Quintus of Smyrna, who lived several centuries later than Homer and his contemporaries, put together an epic poem based on who-knows-what manuscripts that have not survived. Alan James and the Johns Hopkins University Press have published a sweet volume with the text of the epic, and a lengthy commentary section that proves quite useful. Quintus has a habit of using epithets of characters rather than their given names, so if you aren't sure which goddess "Tritogenia" is, it's possible to refer to the commentary as if it were endnotes and figure out the majority of references. (Tritogenia, "thrice-born," is Athena.)

So what do we get as the content of the epic? A battle-axe-wielding Amazon. An Ethiopian demigod born of the rosy Dawn. The madness of Great Ajax. Heracles' son killing scores of Greeks (including their doctor!) before facing Achilles' son who has come to avenge his father. Philoctetes, Heracles' ally, wounding Paris with an arrow dipped in the blood of the Hydra, and Paris's attempt to reconcile with his former lover Oenone before the poison works. The horse gambit (complete with a bizarre appearance by two sea serpents that roam right into town to eat Laocoon's kids… really, they couldn't have done that on the beach?). Lastly, it's got the sack of Troy and Aeneas's escape before one final word from Athena to Lesser Ajax, communicated via thunderbolt.

So for content, this volume delivers. The only story I can think of from this period of the war that the Posthomerica doesn't have in detail is the theft of the Palladium. Obviously, that's no fault of the translator. As for whether the poetics carry the same heft as Homer… probably not. There's only fourteen books, not twenty-four, and one can feel the difference. Deaths are more sudden; stories of heroic angst less rich in detail. Deiphobos claiming Helen just before the fall of the city is barely a footnote. But in keeping with the spirit of the subject matter, I suggest the mythology buffs fall upon this book as wolves fall upon the sheep-fold, their jaws drawing blood while the shepherd, tired from day-long toil, sleeps in his bed, unaware of the violent work that…

...uh, sorry. Got carried away. But if you don't mind a lot of extended similes like that, the Posthomerica is the volume for you.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Trojan-Epic-Posthomerica-Translations-Antiquity-ebook/dp/B004ZYASMC/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=alan+james+posthomerica&qid=1552201952&s=books&sr=1-1-catcorr

Dracula: The Original Flavor

Dracula - Bram Stoker

The last time I read Dracula, I was probably 16 or 17, and what I remembered most fondly was that it was eminently readable. Most 19th-century literature has all kinds of tortured text that makes high school students balk, but this one breezed by. In the ensuing years, I grew up, had kids, wrote a vampire novel of my own, and now it's time to ask, "does it hold up?"


Yeah. Pretty much.


Dracula is an essential part of horror literature, sure, but in our times of four-color cinema it is hard not to also acknowledge him as one of the first supervillains. The Count has been portrayed literally hundreds of times in adaptations of this work, and it is fascinating to see the original details that don't always make the cut.


The Count begins the story with no servants, since he must feed nearly every night, and word has gotten around Transylvania not to go near his castle. His imprisonment of Jonathan Harker is well-thought-out, as he forces Harker to sign letters saying all is well and sends them at later dates to keep up the fiction that Harker will return home. Dracula's sailing trip on the Demeter is less well-planned. The suspense there is all well and good, but feeding on the skeleton crew makes it surprising that he ever made it to England in the first place.


When Dr. Van Helsing is brought in from the Netherlands, he is not yet the hardened vampire hunter portrayed in many adaptations. He is unsure of his diagnosis of Lucy's problems, and neglects to tell her family not to remove the garlic flowers that are "part of her cure." He also makes a rather critical mistake some fellow readers have identified as a plot hole -- when he knows a vampire is in the neighborhood and has already struck Lucy, he and the boys leave Mina alone at night. I think there are a few spots where his Dutch accent comes and goes, but it may be because journals from other points of view don't record his accent and we only get the full effect in chapters that are supposed to be his journal.


Mina Murray is not exactly a modern heroine who doesn't need rescuing, but she's not a cipher of a character, either. Could she have been more? Certainly, but she's not bad as is. Her revulsion at being bitten and spiritual horror at the Eucharist burning her makes for a powerful scene. The disgust leads her to take charge and propose the hypnotism sessions that are instrumental to the plot in the second half of the book. I had never made the connection before this reread, but Harry Potter's Occlumency sessions may owe a debt to Mina and Dracula.


And unlike modern supervillains who rely on action-movie climaxes, Dracula is straight-up sensible. When he knows he's got a few hunters after him, he knows he's helpless during the day. So he flees London to go home and try again in another century because he's got time on his side. He's at least as much prey as he is predator, which is kind of a refreshing change.


The book is not without its cheese, of course. In the final few pages, one of the protagonists dies heroically, and then two characters name their baby after him. Today, that's the tropiest trope that ever did trope (see Star Wars expanded universe, Potter, the works), but now it's got me curious to see if that was Stoker's invention or whether it was common practice as far back as the penny dreadfuls. There's also bits of social commentary through cynical working-class cemetery custodians and Mina waxing poetic about "the wonderful power of money," which I find hilarious. (Apparently even before Batman and Zorro, authors knew you can't hunt a supervillain without some cash in the bank.)


All told, Dracula is quite an enjoyable read, some 120 years after its first print run. I wouldn't go so far as to call it immortal, but it sure isn't dead yet.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Dracula-Bram-Stoker/dp/1503261387/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?ie=UTF8&qid=1540794068&sr=8-1-spons&keywords=dracula&psc=1

Inception: Like It Says, Just a Beginning

Inception - Bianca Scardoni
I know I'm supposed to be a little more forgiving of YA vampire novels than ones aimed at an adult audience, but Inception makes that job harder than usual. The first page starts it off pretty well, promising an intriguing story of how everybody lied to the protagonist and now she has to deal with it. And over the course of the novel this turns out to be true. So on paper, that level of plotting isn't the easiest thing in the world and nets some admiration from me… but I can't shake the feeling that I've read this book before.

Let's see if I can hit all the clichés without spoiling too much of the plot. I think the moment it started for me was when Jemma, the new-girl-at-the-high-school protagonist, dropped her books and the dreamy love interest picked them up for her. It continued through the bad boy one immediately pegs as a vampire turns out to be, yep, a vampire. But that one's a little forgivable because this is YA (younger readers may not have read as many vamp books as adults) and there's a spell on the protagonist that prevents her from cluing in to vampiric presences. The moment where it stopped being fun for me was when the protagonist turned out to be a vampire Slayer… yes, of all the terms in the world, that's the one the author chose.

There's a world-building info dump about Nephilim and supernatural bloodlines, which might have scored some points if it weren't followed by a barrage of labels like Shifters and Keepers and Casters, all coming at me until I totally did not care. Almost every named character in the elite high school is a supernatural woogums of some sort or another, and somehow they can keep their mouths shut about it unlike every high school student I've ever met.

This is too bad, because the characters have some decent interplay amongst the stereotypes; rather than just being standard shallow teens, they're motivated as often as not by convincing reasons like "If I don't lie about this important thing, it may lead to my death or hers." This lends the story a little weight and some nice characterization. There's also some genuine angst as Jemma's backstory gets explored through magical means. 

But that doesn't matter as much as you might think, because like so many urban fantasy series these days, Inception is just the first volume and doesn't have a proper ending or climax. It's a cliffhanger, and so can't be judged on the merits of its incomplete story. Plot threads that might have come together to give the protagonist more trouble (like the jealous mean girl who exemplifies the non-supernatural life Jemma can't get together) just kind of fizzle with a promise that the next book will answer all my questions. I remain unconvinced. I'm rating this 2.5 out of 5, with the 0.5 extra for the layered characterization. I'd be on the fence about recommending it to a YA audience. I liked it better than Twilight but considerably less than strong YA bestsellers like Hunger Games or HP. It did manage to soak up a lot of time on my flight to Beijing, though, so at least it's got that going for it.


Source: http://www.amazon.com/Inception-Dark-Paranormal-Romance-Marked-ebook/dp/B015KOI7F0/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1538013322&sr=8-5&keywords=bianca+scardoni

Strange Practice: Surgically Done

Strange Practice - Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw's Strange Practice has most everything I want in an urban fantasy novel. When I read urban fantasies, I want the protagonist to protag, the villain to seem villainous, the city to permeate the plot, and the climax to clamato. Strange Practice hits all of those notes with the possible exception of the clamato, but only because my beverage jokes are not meant to be taken sincerely. The novel delivers.

Dr. Greta Helsing, despite her vampire-hunting last name, is a doctor for the supernatural denizens of modern London. Greta, a demon named Fastitocolon, two 19th century vampires of pre-Dracula fame named Sir Varney and Lord Ruthven, and another human, Cranswell, team up to solve a series of murders. A killer with a poisoned cross-shaped blade is stabbing people and leaving rosaries in their mouths. The heroes' investigation endangers them, and Dr. Helsing has to use both her medical skills and her wits to unearth a pretty memorable conspiracy. I won't say much more for fear of spoilers, but London's history plays into the makeup of the ultimate villain as well as its lair in a pretty original way.

The author writes a convincing doctor (to my eyes, anyway, me not being one). Greta caring for the undead makes for a wealth of plausible yet original scenes such as patching together mummies and assisting ghoul infants in addition to her injured friends. Greta manages to get herself into and out of scrapes in plausible ways. This includes a nice bit of character-driven plot in which she sensibly doesn't set out to risk herself but turns out to be critical to the mission anyway.

The secondary protagonists are well-fleshed-out, and the villains aren't bad, though I found them more interesting as creations rather than characters. (Points for world-building, not for emotional punch.) Similarly, I would probably enjoy Ruthven and Varney more if I read their original source material that I've never quite gotten around to. I was never burning to finish this book the way I would for a book I'd give 5 stars, but it did hold my interest. The climax and denoument felt satisfying, which I almost always look for in the first novel of a series, and I'm interested in the sequel. So I'm going to give this 4 stars, bumped up to 4.5 because this genre is kind of my raison d'etre on Booklikes. If you like urban fantasy but don't want to hear yet another story about American teenage vampires claiming their birthright or something, Strange Practice may be your cup of clamato. (Yeah, I know tea would be more appropriate for a novel set in London, but come on, Brits have to drink other stuff, too.)

Vampire Wars: Vlad Gets Medieval


When Francis Ford Coppola's movie Bram Stoker's Dracula came out, my Vampire: The Masquerade gaming group debated its merits. The part we universally enjoyed was not the stylish costumes, or the goofy reincarnation plot, or Keanu's acting, but the opening ten minutes when Vlad Tepes is in plate armor spearing his enemies and throwing swords at crosses. "Why," we asked, "doesn't someone make a movie just out of that bit?"

This book is for that gaming group.

If you ever wondered what Dracula did between his death as Vlad Tepes in the late 1400s and the time of Bram Stoker's story, wonder no more. Vampire Wars is a short story collection about some of those missing years. It begins at the time Dracula (here using the Romanian, "Draculea") barely had two underlings to rub together. It progresses over the centuries to a climactic battle against the only unearthly horror that could possibly stop his minions or dampen his nigh-unbreakable will.

Along the way, Vlad kills, maims, tricks, or strikes bargains with more dead things than you'd find in a Kansas City slaughterhouse. Sure, he has a few monstrous minions such as lycanthropes and humans fed vampiric blood, but in the undead world there are revenants, Persian, African, and Russian vampires, and two notable vampire rivals from China (whom, as far as I could gather, do not hop like in Hong Kong horror comedies, because that's about as terrifying as sparkling).

Some of these undead are wholly original, while many others are well-known in horror circles from mythology, fiction, and history. Johann Faust, Erzsebet Bathory, Mircalla "Carmilla" Karnstein, and a conga line of undead from public domain works make appearances. For some extra spice, there's a cameo by some Lovecraftian byakhee and a passing reference to Angelus from you-know-where. If there's an overarching theme to the world-building here, it's simply "It's true -- all of it."

As other reviewers have pointed out, it's essential to view the chapters as individual stories and not a novel. Practically all my quibbles with the narrative style came from the expectations of reading a single story. The author repeats some information (like Vlad's minions' roles and his powers) quite often, which is irritating in a novel, but makes perfect sense in short stories where one can't be assured of reading the previous installment. Because the stories can't depend on each other, Vlad's rise to power is less a long-term campaign with masses of legions, and more a series of small-unit attacks on powerful undead. Decades go by between stories, giving it an episodic feel, and Vlad's minions are often done in during the fighting or just as often, killed off-screen before a new story begins. By the time we get near the climax, Vlad's survival alone seems like reason enough to crown him as the ruler of the vampires. While Vampire Wars is the first in a trilogy, the ending had enough closure to leave me satisfied, which is usually a sticking point for me.

My remaining quibbles are mostly with editing and the odd anachronistic phrase. Vlad uses "thee" and "thy," but his minions will occasionally pipe up with modern language like "you have to be kidding." As for content, I personally wanted to see a bit more interaction between Draculea and his allies apart from the campaigns, and it appears I am not alone in this. The sequel, Brides of Dracula, appears to cover exactly that ground. So though I took off a star or so for not being a work I would reread obsessively, I think I will be checking out more by the author.

At about 200 pages, Vampire Wars is pretty fast reading. I personally got it on Kindle. I'd recommend it to Lovecraft fans, vampire buffs, and yes, to my old gaming group.

Note: I can't find the author on Booklikes, nor am I able to add him, which means I can't add this book, either. Navigate to Amazon/Goodreads if you are curious.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Vampire-Wars-Perry-Lake-ebook/dp/B00IWTUK2O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536730789&sr=8-1&keywords=vampire+wars+perry+lake

Game Devs & Others: Tales From the Margins

Game Devs & Others: Tales From the Margins - Tanya DePass

Game Devs & Others is a collection of essays by game industry veterans who are marginalized in some way. They are black, Asian, Hispanic, queer, disabled, trans, past 40, the works. Collected by Tanya DePass of the nonprofit I Need Diverse Games, the stories range from positive accounts of great work environments to awkward moments of confrontation to horror stories that contributed to the essayist leaving the game industry. As the dedication says, the narratives "are for everyone who wants to enter this world with the hope of more people like them, both on screen and behind the scenes." In other words, going in to this book, I knew it was not intended for me.


Why should I be cool with that? Lots of reasons.


First, it's a small taste of what marginalized people go through in my chosen industry. Day in and day out they've had to consume content that doesn't put them front and center. Anyone feeling under-served can read Kadeem Dunn's "The Prevailing Need to Push for Protagonists of Color" which breaks down comparative statistics about how rare it is to find a protagonist that looks like (let alone has lived a life like) the player.


Second, even people who consider themselves allies could learn a thing or two here. Shana Bryant's "Distraction and Reaction" talk recounts how her company sensitivity training encouraged people not to call each other out in public when they heard offensive comments, hardly a welcoming atmosphere for all.


Third, for those who say the playing field is already level, Jonathan Jennings details in his "Black Unicorn" essay that he sent out more than 300 resumes before he landed his first game job -- I was sweating bullets back when 12 of mine didn't land me anything.


And last, by reading, I discovered new games and new paradigms. I didn't know Twine was used so extensively by marginalized audiences (I'd heard of Depression Quest, but not the many LGBTQIA stories that flourish in a platform all about accessibility). I'd never heard of a body horror game with eating disorders as its subtext (Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, hat tip to Kaitlin Tremblay). Now I totally want to check it out, along with many indie games like it. And then there's this factoid: in the United States, Latino and Black children have been shown to play video games at the highest rates. I've been in the industry 13 years, and I never heard that as a baseline for a design decision.


I suppose I could throw some criticism at Game Devs and Others, but there's a little voice in my head stopping me. It sounds something like this:


Me: Hey, I expected more essays from devs who've been in this industry for decades.


Voice: Don't you think that kinda makes a point all on its own?


Me: Umm, maybe this would be improved with more perspectives by legendary AAA game designers or-


Voice: Think real hard about why those might be difficult to find.


Me: Oh-kay, shutting up and reading now.


Though not every essay lights the world on fire, enough of them do for this book to be on the shelf of aspiring game designers or at least your game company's library. A sample of quotations:


"None of us survives alone, and we are alone if we are silenced," writes Kaitlin Tremblay.


Joshua Boykin quotes Cicero Holmes: "When someone says 'I don't like the fact that this game is getting political,' they mean 'I don't like the fact that this game is getting political for me.'"


JC Lau writes, "Paradoxically, I recognize that the more 'unicorns' there are in the game industry, the fewer 'unicorns' there actually will be. By normalizing what makes people 'other,' they're no longer othered."


Or there's Kat Jones: "Our games give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak and to dare. And that is not a luxury, but a necessity."


This book wasn't intended for me. But if it reaches its audience, it may prompt more like it, and we may get games that ask people like me to live in some other person's skin for a while. As a role-playing gamer, I can hardly refuse, and to that, I say, bring it on.

Dark Prince: Get Some Aloe Vera For That Burning Desire

Dark Prince - Christine Feehan

Dark Prince really likes its male and female leads. Their names are Mikhail and Raven, and they are perfect for each other. I mean that in a factual rather than complimentary way. The book takes great pains to make them two halves of a whole, baking it into the premise of the magic system. The male vampires of the novel must find a lifemate to keep them from succumbing to their darkest urges, and just one person in the world will do.


Mikhail and Raven know they're in the throes of destiny right from the get-go. Raven's a human psychic vacationing in Romania when she hears Mikhail's angst via telepathy. Being a giving soul, she helps out, and their communication via direct thoughts conveniently puts their courtship pedal to the metal. Mikhail, a powerful noble Byronic hero type who doesn't take no for an answer, shows up at her tourist lodge in the middle of dinner and uses his mind-affecting powers to cow everyone while he literally carries Raven off to his pad.


If you're thinking this is as creepy as it reads, let me just say "uh-huh." Raven tries to resist, but can't because Mikhail is just so damn sexy. This is not from his mental commands -- he specifically mentally commands her a couple of times for other reasons, but Raven chooses not to shit a brick in absolute terror at this violation, and once she's made some protestations, falls in sweeping, all-consuming, dizzy-from-blood-loss love with him. Their banter is meant to ameliorate this power disparity (which it doesn't, really), and carry on in the tradition of heroines who find vampires irresistible despite their danger. But unlike Bram Stoker's blood-drinking-as-metaphor-for-sex, Dark Prince gets straight into sex and blood that is, um, about 75% consensual and 25% coercion. It's never rape, but a girl could use some pepper spray is what I'm saying.


Our hero and heroine then have earth-shaking throw-down gorilla sex for about the first half of the book. It's pretty well described the first time, which is good, because the next five times or so it says a lot of the same stuff. Everything is "silken skin" and "burning need," there's a lot of souls becoming one and manful "claiming her as his." To be fair, it's not all repetition: the stakes are upped a little bit each time from sex to sex & blood to lifemate ritual to the vampiric Embrace itself.


Oh, did I use a Vampire: The Masquerade term? Don't worry about it. Dark Prince is full of them. There's blood bonding, princes of vampires, sun lethargy, blood potency, lots of sleeping bodily in the earth like in the Protean discipline, and who knows what I've forgotten. To be fair, an entire generation of urban fantasy was influenced by White Wolf, so the author is not alone here. My own writing has gaming in its DNA, too. But for obvious reasons, I'll call out when a mainstream genre writer doesn't file off the serial numbers before reselling Chekov's gun.


There are some additional touches not in White Wolf - the weather literally gets worse with Mikhail's mood, the vampires have a fertility crisis and will die without their lifemates, and my personal favorite bit: Mikhail goes off in his own language now and then. (Honestly, I can't tell if it's made-up or just Romanian, but it added nicely to the world-building.)


Most of the book is sex, or flirting when the blood-bonded pair are too injured to have sex, or yearning whenever they are apart from each other for literally even a moment. This gets pretty worn, but around the second half of the book, a plot picks up involving vampire hunters and their mastermind bent on exterminating the last few Carpathians, the book's term for "good" vampires. Carpathians are established as vulnerable to bullets as well as the sun, so despite Mikhail's frequently-mentioned amazing powers, the antagonists are a pretty effective threat. It all comes together fine, but the purple prose wore me out about halfway through, so the dramatic heights of the end were not as climactic for me as the author probably intended. All in all, Dark Prince has few surprises, but as evidenced by its gazillion sequels, when your novel is primarily about vampire sex, the market value of surprises is pretty low.


I'd give this two stars, but I'm going to bump it to two and a half because of the research necessary to put together the Carpathian language. That doesn't grow on trees. As for who'd like it, if you thought the Mina/Dracula dynamic in that Francis Ford Coppola movie was cheeseball and you picked up this novel, I got nothin' but bad news for you. On the other hand, if you want a towering romance with mountain chateaus and that 19th-century Gothic vibe with lightning storms and noble savage blood-drinkers, Dark Prince tries hard to deliver. And if you just want vampire sex, which there ain't no shame in, you can fill in the other two and a half stars yourself.

Blood Kissed: Okay, I'll Bite

— feeling bloody
Blood Kissed - Keri Arthur

"Blood Kissed" follows Lizzie Grace, a psychic descended from witches who runs a café in small-town Australia. There's a nasty vampire on the loose, a werewolf cop who doesn't trust witches, and Belle, Lizzie's peppy familiar (unusually, a human and Lizzie's BFF). A lawyer employs Lizzie to find her missing daughter, who, as is revealed in the first chapter, ran off with the vampire.


I read through this book fairly rapidly – it's not very long – and though it wasn't terrible, I wasn't thrilled, either. The author sets up a fair bit of world-building for the series in large chunks in the first few chapters. There's differences between psychics and witches, wild magic, and some particular noble witch families. But for all the talk about Lizzie's potential for witch power, said witches don't make much of an appearance. Because her familiar Belle is a witch, Lizzie can channel plenty of witch magic through her throughout the book, and she can ultimately tap into wild magic, rendering her I'm-only-a-psychic protestations of the first few chapters a distinction without a difference. (To be fair, fans of the book say there are witches coming to town in the sequel, so all the world-building may pay off there.)

The Australian setting had me excited, since I haven't seen an urban fantasy set there before, but the scenery is barely mentioned, and the characters' turns of phrase sound as if they could come straight from the modern USA. In my head, I tried adding Steve Irwin's accent to all the dialogue, which made the experience better, but one would expect at least a few colloquialisms unique to the area. I was hoping the setting would inform the magic and the feel of the place, like Mexico City in Silvia Moreno-Garcia's "Certain Dark Things," but alas, no. (Again, I am told the sequels improve upon this.)

The chapter style tired me out a little; they're long, and moments where the protagonist gets some sleep or otherwise jumps forward in time is no guarantee that a new chapter will start. As such, I found myself getting irritated that the protagonist just kept going, selling brownies at her café or working on enchantments when I wanted to finish a chapter. It made me want to skip paragraphs even when the writing was interesting.

As for the mystery (don't all urban fantasies require one?) and the villain, I didn't find it memorable. The villain's motivation sounds like a creature of great power seriously angered by a pretty banal evil. Yes, evil often is, but I was waiting for the psychic protagonist to have some visceral flashback to that time, making us feel the horror and injustice that started its path down a dark road, but I don't recall reading that scene. It made me expect a villainous monologue, but I don't remember getting one of those, either. What I did get was lots of descriptions of magic, with only a few of them evoking fear or wonder. Most of them are caught up in explaining why someone or something is an exception to the rules, because there's a lot of exceptions (protagonist, sidekick, antagonist, spell, power source, etc.).

Well, that's plenty of complaints, but all this is not to say the book is terrible. Lizzie and Belle are charming and easy to relate to. Their telepathy is a useful narrative device that provides constant insight into their characters. (Who hasn't had the thought of "Hey, nice butt," when you should be listening to the words coming out of someone's mouth, yet you'd never admit it to someone who wasn't reading your thoughts?) The action is reasonably convincing, as is the threat from the villain. The protagonists and villains aren't stupid. Sure, some side characters are, but when the main ones walk into traps, it's because they don't have a lot of better options.

I'm giving this one 2.5 stars out of 5 using the Goodreads rating system. That's where 2 stars is "It was okay," and 3 stars is a definitive "I liked it." I picked it up on Kindle at a pretty low price and was satisfied for what it was. It's competent and plenty of my urban fantasy fan friends are more positive about the book than I am, so of course your mileage may vary. I just wanted this kiss to have a little more teeth.

The Passage: Vampocalypse Now, or at Least 2008-ish

The Passage - Justin Cronin

It's twenty minutes into the future, and an aggrieved FBI agent is rounding up subjects that no one will miss. Twelve of them are death row inmates: the thirteenth is an abandoned six-year-old, Amy Bellafonte. They are to be injected with a serum from a Bolivian bat virus to create (all together now) super-soldiers. The "virals" get vampire-y, the vampires cause mayhem, and after breaking free they overrun the United States and possibly the world. But that's only about a third of the story.


Once this several-hundred-page build-up is out of the way, we cut to ninety years later. In a stockade in California called the Colony, the descendants of a few survivors rely on lights to repel the virals, and the rechargeable batteries that power those lights are wearing out. Incredibly, a "walker" shows up for the first time in decades. After a fracas getting her inside the walls, the community blames the members of the Watch whose decision led to a few deaths. Before mob justice can be completely executed, a small group of companions flee the Colony, determined to find out what has happened to the rest of the world and to solve the mystery of the walker – who is none other than Amy. Not only has she survived countless viral attacks, she's barely aged in all this time.


The plot that ensues is hard not to compare to "The Stand," primarily because it's a story about a diverse array of scrappy blue-collar heroes who confront evil by walking across post-apocalyptic America. The characters aren't exactly the same, but the feel is vintage Stephen King. Psychic powers, unethical government experiments, maternal black women, stashes of weapons that even the odds with terrifying monsters, Biblical overtones and the infrequent nuclear blast – all these elements are King oeuvre.


Of course, my question when reviewing is less "has it been done before?" but "is it being done well now?" And yeah, it's not bad. The build-up to the outbreak keeps the pages turning, and the backstories of the pre-outbreak characters build some sympathy. Post-apocalypse, the dramatic moments when someone is taken by virals but *isn't* instant vamp chow make sense most of the time and lead to characterization moments. And though there are sequels, there is a reasonable amount of closure at the end of the first book. Considering it's a hefty 879 pages in paperback, I'd be angry if there weren't.


There are weaknesses, of course. The post-apocalyptic characters are a little more interchangeable than the well-drawn ones of the beginning. When a human encampment seems too good to be true, the twist is predictable (though the exact particulars still make for a good scene). The apocalypse feels straight out of small-town America's 2005 anti-terror/disaster preparation fantasy rather than harsh reality, or at least the impassable highways full of abandoned vehicles and degraded fuel of "The Stand." It's hard not to think of Mad Max or its South Park parody when the people of the Colony refer to "The Time Before" and use other uninspired slang. And there's a minor deus ex machina for a few characters near the end, called out in dialogue but left unanswered in this volume. (At least it wasn't the literal Hand of God setting off a nuke in Las Vegas.)


All that said, "The Passage" still feels like a genuine epic, one of those novels that starts out like a horror show and morphs into a battle of good versus evil. And if Stephen King were the only person who could write such a story, the world would be a drearier place. It was obviously written during the height of the War on Terror, but there's one notable quotation that still rings true:

"All this time, we were hoping the Army would come to our rescue," says Alicia, "and it turns out the army is us."

3.5 out of 5

Mercy: Mystery Boxes to Be Revealed in Sequels

Mercy (The Guardians Series 1) - Wendy Saunders

"Mercy" is a pretty straightforward urban fantasy in the vein of... well, a lot of urban fantasies. It's got a witch with a tragic origin story that drives the plot, an occult serial killer, lots of references to Salem (just down the road from the town of the title), neopagan magic, a witchfinder from the 17th century popping up in the modern day a la "Warlock," and destined true love with lots of passionate smooching. It is also (very definitively) just the beginning of a series, so if you're expecting all of this to wrap up neatly... or at all... by the end, you're going to be disappointed.


There's also a few nitpicks I have with the POV (it jumps into different characters' heads quite a bit) a cameo by a powerful magical entity, and the novel's portrayal of mental hospitals (which in no universe let out a guy with knife wounds claiming to be from another time just because his family asks nicely, nor are they fooled by someone hiding a pill in their mouth). And if you think the 17th century guy is going to sound like he's from the 17th century... no. Frequent nods are made to things he doesn't understand, but he drops modern phrases like any contemporary fantasy heartthrob. I'd grade the book down to two stars, but it has some strengths that made the reading experience breeze by.


The pacing is pretty good; the characters form a fairly convincing small town and seem real to one another; the heroes suffer a bit and have to struggle against some fairly powerful forces; and rather importantly, the central mystery reveals that not all allies and enemies are as they first appear. If you've read a lot of urban fantasies in which the hero finds out their True Lineage (tm), you probably won't be surprised by much here, but it came at appropriately dramatic moments. Lastly, I booed the characters that I was supposed to boo and liked the characters I was supposed to like, and that isn't the easiest thing in the world to write. So props to all the work that went into the book.

3 out of 5.

Dread Nation: Started off loving it... ended up only liking it.

Dread Nation - Justina Ireland

I enjoyed and admired a lot of things about Dread Nation, but for some reason it didn't gel into a book that I would rave about the way all the positive professional reviews do. I found myself getting sidetracked with other books until I finally made up my mind to finish it, and when I did, I found the ending a little lacking. Strengths of the book include its core premise, backstory, setting, world-building, and protagonist. A Reconstruction-era, zombie-fighting, sickle-wielding WOC and her friends from combat school is an idea that I haven't seen before in any medium, and I was on board after the first few pages. Jane is fiery and clever and doesn't fit into the subservient little role that polite society wants ("society" being a long parade of authority figures). The antagonists are pretty convincing evil racists, who long for the "good old days" of slavery that are still in living memory and blaming the zombies on man's "mistake," the Civil War and emancipation. The humans are worse than the shamblers, and I'm still fine with that as a theme.

But when I got to the ending, it felt a little flat. Let me see if I can critique this without spoilers. The big emotional punch is a revelation about backstory. That's nice to tie together the ongoing correspondence we see that begins every chapter, but I feel like it's got to break some kind of writing rule. Why? I cared about what Jane was going to do in the present *because* of her backstory a lot more than new information about something she did long ago. On top of that, the protagonists get out of the mess they've been getting into in the last third of the book pretty easily, and within a few pages, shoop, there's setup for a sequel. I realize pretty much every genre fiction book these days sells with franchises in mind, no shame there, but I felt like it came at the expense of a satisfying climax. I might be interested in sequels, but unfortunately, it's a "might" for me instead of a "hoo-rah, yes." I hope the narratives of the series improve with the author's skill, because she's definitely got some, and I want to see where these characters and their world go. So... 3 out of 5.

Saga, Volume 1 - Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

A space fantasy if you don't need much space, Saga draws us into a story of forbidden lovers that is by turns funny, heartwarming, violent, and empathetic. I'm not in the mood to rehash the plot, so I'll just say the thing that stands out for me is the bizarro character design, which made me turn the pages just to see what WTFery would pop up next. The guiding principle seems to be "make every single character a little human and a lot not." Spider centauroids without arms, robots with TVs for heads, and a hairless cat that only speaks when it smells a lie. It's boldly imaginative, and breathes new life into the our-child-is-important-to-the-entire-universe trope with details clearly gleaned from grody firsthand parenting experiences. I'm 3 volumes in and ready for more... what else is there to say?

Pirate Latitudes

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton Pirate Latitudes starts off strong, progresses into pulpy pirate adventure fare, and by the end gets a little rushed and hackneyed. The descriptions laid out in the beginning are engaging and florid: by the end the descriptions have the spareness of a screenplay, a form of writing that Crichton was no doubt very familiar with before his untimely passing. The formation of a team of privateers to pull off a big pirate score owes a debt to the heist movie genre, and the many times that Hunter, the privateer protagonist, escapes capture or death owes a bit to good pulp plotting.

Unfortunately, I must take off a few stars for the times it snapped my suspenders of disbelief: our heroes are deadly accurate with muskets, yet the enemy has trouble hitting our heroes or for that matter a barn wall. This isn't so bad except at one point it includes an antagonist who is built up as one of the deadliest killers on the sea, with no ruse or distraction to throw off his aim. For a novel that is reasonably grounded in reality, it also includes a sea monster... not just a squid, but a kraken of such massive size as to drag our heroes back down 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many of Crichton's details sound convincing, but they were undercut in my mind by an offhanded reference to the bowsprit being an unimportant place to hit on an enemy ship. That's not accurate: all the ropes that go from the masts to the bowsprit are there for a reason. Lose the ropes, lose the sails.

Lastly, I'd be remiss in this day and age if I didn't warn the readers that there's some bodice-ripping in this novel, some consensual and relevant to the plot, and two or three instances where it is only one or neither. Still, the novel keeps moving well past the point where I imagined it would end, throwing more difficulties into our protagonist's path, and I'm not sorry I read the whole thing. 3 out of 5.

Poison Fruit

Poison Fruit - Jacqueline Carey

This end to the trilogy ups the stakes and fulfills the Chekov's gun of the last two books: the apocalypse. Where Daisy Johannsen was once merely acting as the supernatural equivalent of a small-town sheriff, the novel builds up the Agent of Hel until everything she loves is threatened. A minor plot involving a night hag exists mostly as a backdrop to Daisy's love life and legal problems left over from the previous two books. This keeps in with a theme of Daisy feeling powerless, which is what drives her to contemplate doing what would be unthinkable two books ago: invoking her birthright and threatening the destruction of the world. To get her there, Carey methodically endangers the people of Daisy's beloved town and takes away all normal recourses (legal, illegal, magical, technological) until the threat of a supernatural war looms... and is fulfilled.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The pacing, the world-building and the characterization gave me no problems. As others have mentioned, the series is not as lyrically beautiful in its descriptions as the Kushiel series, but Carey's voice switches quite well to a modern, youthful protagonist with pop culture references that evoke the Buffys of the genre without being an outright imitation of them. (I imagine it is also quicker and easier to write after who-knows-how-many words without modernisms! Carey deserves a break, neh?) I will end by saying the author gets bonus points for including a class-action lawsuit, since more of those really ought to happen in modern urban fantasies. 4 of 5.

The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion - Kameron Hurley If you've ever said you wanted a space opera where sex, plotting and politics matter more than long descriptions of technology, you should consider reading The Stars are Legion. With a few skillful decisions of character and pacing, Hurley gives us a protagonist, some emotional investment, and takes us off to the adventure. Zan, our first POV protag, knows what she wants: control of her living world/ship and a life with her lover Jayd. Zan's amnesia masks all the rest -- Zan is familiar with the concepts the reader needs to grasp, and everything else is as weird or new or disgusting to her as it is to us.

The science is reasonably sound (living worldships surrounding an artificial sun traveling through space, massive amounts of genetic engineering to make it as sustainable as possible) but the beauty of the world-building is that it pretty much never comes up. Zan's struggles feel more mythical or allegorical as she fights her way out of the world-under-the-world to reclaim her memory. The "gross-out factor" wasn't a problem for me, since the writing style is rather spare. (Of course, if you get ill from a book that has women declaring their love for other women, yes, go find another book.) The spare style also extends to the characters, who are defined by what they do rather than how they look, much like in a screenplay. If this novel ever spreads to multimedia, its visuals could help distinguish between the minor characters at a glance and really hammer home the alienness of the living worlds.

As for the ending, the book is pretty clear early on that it will deal with the inevitable choice that amnesiac protagonists encounter: reconciling who they were with who they want to be. I wouldn't call this mind-blowing, but then I'm familiar with recent stories in that vein (Knights of the Old Republic, Planescape: Torment, etc.). It would probably seem a lot cooler to a reader who hasn't seen that trick before, but the story is solid enough to stand on its own. Four stars out of five.