Review: Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines

This is the start of a new urban fantasy series that is based on perhaps the greatest fanfic idea in history: mages whose fundamental magic is to pull physical items out of books. Need a ray gun? A magical potion? Excalibur, the Sword of Kings? Just pop down to your local bookstore, flip to the right page, and pull it out.

Now, there are limits on this. Some of them have to do with the way the magic works, but others are put in place by the ruling society of mages. So, no sentient nanobots, no atomic weapons, and no One True Ring to rule them all. Still, you can be bitten by a vampire or werewolf if you stick your hands into the wrong book, and heaven help you if you spend too much time with the History of the Black Plague. But what happens when mages start going missing, impossible artifacts start appearing, and the folks who are supposed to stop all of this are asleep at the switch?

Here’s where we find Isaac Vainio, a would-be Libriomancer who got kicked out of the order, left with the menial task of checking the latest from sci-fi and fantasy for overpowered weapons and dangerous infections. He’s not merely a nobody. He’s a has-been nobody, forbidden from even using the limited powers he once wielded. But he’s the one who has to pick up the flaming spider and charge forth against the darkness. Yes, a flaming spider… I’m sure I read that somewhere…

Anyway, it starts with this ecstatic-fanboy premise and takes us on an amazing trip, showing us both how it all got started, how it can go terribly wrong, and the actions we have to take to keep us all from being plundered by the Uruk-hai or the battle-droids. This is the most fun I’ve had with urban fantasy in a long time.

Review: White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, by Diana Rowland

This is the third in Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, and it has kept up the brain-munching pace of the earlier books. Things with her kind-of boyfriend are still in the one-shamble-forward, two-shambles-back stage. Her alcoholic dad is struggling to reform. And zombie mafia and evil corporations are still using her as a pawn in their shadow war. Did I just say zombie mafia? Why yes… yes I did.

I really enjoyed this book because I felt that Angel, our eponymous White Trash Zombie, finally came into her own. In the first two tales, she was struggling to find her way between forces that would use her as a pawn, but I think this time she really established herself as a player to be reckoned with. And as always, Rowland hits this one out of the park with excellent writing and a great character voice.

However, I do have a mild complaint that she (and a couple of other folks) were not as wary as I think they should have been. When a dangerous character arrives briefly on the scene, they simply write it off as something to keep an eye out for. Meanwhile, I was screaming at them to load up, hunker down, and call in the cavalry. But apart from that, they were all fairly sharp, especially towards the end when the, um… brains hit the blender.

So, it’s a good installment. The denouement was long enough that I thought perhaps Rowland was wrapping up the series as a trilogy, but according to her FAQ, she has at least three more novels planned for Angel and her zombie friends. Look for the next one sometime in 2014.

Review: Cursed, by Benedict Jacka

This is the second in the Alex Verus series, an urban fantasy about a mage living in London. What makes this series particularly interesting is that you won’t see Alex slinging fireballs or lightning bolts. While there are plenty of those around, Alex isn’t that kind of mage. Instead, he’s a diviner, someone who has the ability to see into the many possible futures lying ahead of him. It’s great help in a maze, but not so obviously useful in a firefight.

In this second installment, Alex is asked to investigate some dark rituals for another mage, an employer he does not entirely trust. For starters, he’s a mage, and Alex has learned not to trust other mages, and second, when this mages other employee showed up at his door, a nasty attack by some third party arrived within seconds. Meanwhile, some ambitious mundane is trying to make off with Alex’s beautiful (but cursed) apprentice. And when Alex’s best friend is attacked… well, everything just falls apart.

I really enjoyed this one, and I’m starting to think of these books as great companion’s for the Dresden Files. While Harry often blasts his way in without thinking, Alex sneaks in because thinking is his only weapon. So, two thumbs up for this one, and as I say with all series, start at the beginning with Fated.

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City, by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is a legend in the podcasting community, from her award winning “I Should Be Writing” show back to her early years of “Geek Fu Action Grip” show. She has been publishing in small and indie press for a while, but this is something of a breakout novel for her. She recently won the Campbell Award for best new writer, and she has more books in the pipeline.

This is the story of Zoe, a down-on-her-luck travel writer in the big city. It’s not actually new to her, since much of childhood was actually in New York, but now she is on her own, unemployed, and feeling pretty low. But then she stumbles upon the city’s underworld of coterie, the polite term for monsters of every stripe from dragons to zombies. She is just desperate enough for work to get over her squeamishness and take a job writing a travel guide for New York monsters, pointing out the best hotels, entertainment, and *gulp* feeding grounds.

I liked it. It was a good exploration of the coterie culture and how it interacted with our world, both in secret and somewhat in public. The conflict managed to tie in with Zoe’s personal story, and it all came together nicely at the end. I suppose my only complaint was that the ending kept building battle up on battle. After a certain point through that escalation, I started feeling detached from the tale and the fates of the characters. Still, I’m looking forward to the next book where she attempts to do a similar guide for New Orleans.

Review: Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

This is the second Mercy Thompson book, and it built nicely on top of the first one. In fact, I recall what seemed like an unnecessary vampire diversion in the first book, and this book is where that pays off. Here, Mercy gets called upon by her tie-dye loving hippy vampire friend to do one little favor, except nothing can ever be that simple for poor Mercy.

It turns out there’s another vampire feeding in town, and he doesn’t want to pay homage to the local vampires like a polite bloodsucker. Instead, he’s daring them to stop him, and when they try, it turns out he’s more than he appears. This leads to a full-on hunt including both other vampires and some of Mercy’s werewolf friends. For a while, Mercy gets sidelined since this particular hunt is way above her pay-grade, but when the hunt goes bad, it’s time for her to take matters into her own hands again.

The book was well-paced – even the portion where Mercy was sidelined had its share of conflict – and Mercy’s talents gave her a role even when no one else believed in her. About the only thing that threw me was… well, this is treading into spoiler territory, but the story wasn’t really over when I thought it was. There was still action yet to come.

All in all, a good tale, and book #3 is working its way through my in-pile.

Review: Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues, by Diana Rowland

This was a fun sequel to My Life as A White Trash Zombie. While the first book didn’t end on an obvious cliffhanger, this one managed to pick up pretty much right away with more drama and spunky zombie attitude.

Our narrator/protagonist, Angel, is finally settling into her new life as a zombie and figures she has some breathing room now that she has dealt with the zombie hunter from the first book. Ha! Think again, because now she’s getting dropped into the larger world of zombies, complete with power plays, mobster politics, and hidden agendas. Allies become enemies. Enemies become allies. And to top it off, she’s getting hassled at work because… if you can believe it… it’s an election year, and someone wants to score points against her boss at her expense.

I had a fun time with this. The character voice is great, and her plight makes life as a zombie less about “Rrrrg” and more about “How dead do I smell today?” While the first one squicked me several times with all-too-vivid descriptions of the taste and texture of a “brain smoothie”, this one avoided such over-the-top sensory paintings. I think my only complaint was one shared by our protagonist, that too many people did not take her seriously when she suspected things were getting weird. Well, at least weirder than being a zombie.

This one does end in a more unresolved state than the first book. I won’t go so far as to call it a cliffhanger, but I will say that my first act upon finishing the book was to look for the next one. Sure enough, it looks like we’re rounding this one out to a trilogy with White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, due out July 2, 2013.

Summer Writing Schedule

writing_iconI thought I’d take a few minutes to update you about what I’m working on this summer.

Hell Bent is officially in beta. I handed it off to the bulk of the beta readers in the last few days, and I’m working out a handoff for the last one today. Hopefully I’ll get all that feedback by mid/late July and then do my edits in August. If I can get it to the copy editor in the September time frame, I might manage to publish it in November.

Debts of My Fathers (the sequel to Ships of My Fathers) is still in pre-edit limbo. I have the printout ready and waiting, but I haven’t looked at it since I wrapped it up last November. I will very likely do my initial edits to it this summer with an eye towards getting it to beta readers in the early fall. Publication is targeted for around New Years, but at this point, it’s hard to nail it down.

But for now, I’m starting to draft new work. In fact, I’m planning to draft two new novels this summer, if time and brain allows. My goal is to draft two new novels this year, with some hope of stretching that to three, and here I am with the year almost half-gone and not a single one written. Time to dig in.

shattered_vaseThe first one, tentatively titled Shattered, is quite the departure for me and might actually be a throw-away novel. Why? It’s a mystery, something I’ve never written before. Then why am I writing it, especially now when I should be trying to establish a rhythm in my publishing career? A couple of reasons. First, my mother is not a sci-fi or urban fantasy fan, and she keeps asking when I’m going to write something she can read. Well, I’m going to indulge her and try to write a mystery.

But the other reason is that a number of SF writers recommend that every writer should write a mystery at some point in their career, the earlier the better. Apparently, there’s something to be learned from the way a good mystery lays everything out and yet keeps the reading from seeing the resolution until the characters wrap it up all together. I’m also going to try a few experiments with additional prep work. I won’t say I’m going as far as the dreaded outline, but I’m at least laying down a few details before I type “Chapter 1”.

The second book I hope to draft this summer is the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer. My general goal in writing series is to draft the sequel before publishing the first, or to generalize it, draft N+1 before publishing N. I figure that improves my odds of fixing continuity problems before they go to print since it allows me to spot a problem in N+1 and fix it in N before it’s too late. So, since I hope to hand off Hell Bent to the copy editor around September, that means I’ll want to draft Stone Killer before that.

But if you do the math, you’ll see that’s drafting two full novels in the next two and a half months. Even considering that one of them is a mystery (typically a little shorter, targeting 65-75,000), the total for both novels will be in the range of 140-160,000 words. That’s about three NaNoWriMo’s worth in less than three months, while also trying to wrap up edits to Hell Bent and making my initial edits to Debts of My Fathers.

I honestly don’t know if I can do it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Review: Fated, by Benedict Jacka

This is the first book in the Alex Verus series, of which there are currently three – and a fourth one coming out later in 2013. A friend from Australia recommended them to me, saying “If you liked the Dresden Files, you’ll like these.” That set a high bar, but I was not disappointed.

In many ways, it’s a Dresden-like world with wizards and other magical creatures hiding beneath the surface. He even makes a cute reference to Dresden with a remark of “supposedly there’s a wizard in Chicago who advertises in the phone book.” There’s even some wizard organizations, of both good and evil varieties. And our hero is one of these wizards, somewhat caught between the two camps, much like Dresden.

But the similarities end there.

Alex Verus is no fire-wielding combat wizard. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. In face to face combat, he can’t do much more than throw a punch or try to trip you. You see, he’s a diviner who can see the future. But of course, seeing the future means you can change it, so what he really sees is the massively bifurcating tree of possible futures.

Do I turn right or left here? Do I say hello or run like hell? Do I accept this offer, or do I find out that it truly is an offer I cannot refuse? He can explore all those options and try to make the decisions that keep his body and soul joined. But he can only see so far, and he can’t see past someone else’s independent decisions. So, like most good diviners, he puts most of his efforts towards laying low and staying out of trouble.

But then trouble comes looking for him. The various powers-that-be want help cracking open a mysterious artifact, and to do that, they need a diviner. It’s a magical safe-box of sorts, and who else would ask to see the future of all those magical combination locks? Alex is not exactly at the top of the list for diviners, but the best of them have all coincidentally realized that now is a good time to be far, far away from this artifact and those who would open it. Alex isn’t quite that smart, or that lucky.

So he gets drawn back into a world he had done his best to leave behind, hoping he’s smart enough to find his way back out again when it’s all over.

I liked it. A lot. As much as I enjoy Harry Dresden blundering in with his blasting rod and .44 Magnum , he solves more of his day-to-day problems through brute force rather than cunning guile. Alex Verus doesn’t have the option of firepower.

He has to be smart. Or dead. He tries to be smart.

Review: Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs

This is the first book in the Mercy Thompson series. She’s our first person narrator and also a “skin walker”, a kind of shape-changing witch from Native American lore. Since she has the habit of turning into a coyote, she was sent to be raised by a pack of werewolves in a small Montana town. Now she’s in Washington state, living next to another werewolf, and running a one-woman garage she inherited from a gremlin.

A few of the magical beings came out to the public a few years ago, but most remain in private, including the werewolves and the vampires she’s paying protection money to. Or at least she would be paying if she could afford it. Fortunately, one of them is trying to restore an old VW bus, so she’s working it off in trade. So, she was not entirely surprised when a teenage werewolf on the run showed up at her doorstep looking for help.

As you would expect, hijinks ensue. The folks chasing the young werewolf start sniffing around for him, and the local pack of werewolves is none too happy about it. Then it starts look like an even bigger problem stemming from other packs across the country, and that brings in the pack that raised her… and by the way, she did not exactly leave that pack under the best of circumstances. Before long, the moon is up, and all hell is breaking loose. Well, not literally hell, it’s at least… um, hair-raising.

I liked it. The plot was good, and it kept me guessing. The characters were fairly real to me, and she did a good job of humanizing werewolves without turning them into sparkle-puppies. My biggest complaint was that some of the important plot-movers were “off screen” until late in the book, so I had a hard time keeping track of who was who once they showed up in the final build towards the climax. My much smaller complaint was there was a sidetrack thread about the local vampires that was interesting but not really required for the plot of this book. Clearly, it’s there to set up more events in future books, but it felt very extraneous in this one.

Still, even with those caveats, it was enjoyable. The next one is already sitting in my kindle samples, waiting to go.

Review: Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

This is the first book in The Hollows series, an urban fantasy series where the various Inderlanders (everything from pixies to vampires) were revealed when they proved immune to a pandemic that wiped out a good chunk of humanity years ago. It’s a first person tale told by Rachel Morgan, a witch who has had her fill of working for the magical cops of Inderland Security.

So, she’s off on her own, or at least she would be if she wasn’t joined by two partners, a pixie named Jenks and her old partner Ivy, a living vampire. Being a magical private investigator is not technically illegal, but her bosses at I.S. aren’t the kind to just shake hands and say goodbye. So, in addition to setting up shop and trying to track down her first case, she’s got her old bosses trying to turn her into a grim warning to anyone else foolish enough to follow in her footsteps.

The world was interesting, and her first case was a reasonably good exploration of it. I liked the characters for the most part, though I found the vampire and pixie to be a little too stereotypical. That is, the vampire was a touch too brooding, and the pixie was annoyingly perky and excitable. The story kept things moving, but I thought it was a slow take-off with too much world-building narrative in the early chapters.

Still, it finished strong and left enough open questions to lure me into the next book. It’s evidently quite a long series now, and a friend of mine is quite happy with the later books. So, I guess I’ll be digging into them soon enough.