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.
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 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" 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.
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" 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.
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.
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?
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.