The Series Series: Cursed by S.J. Harper

Monday, May 19th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Cursed S.J. Harper-smallOnce in a while, I check in with the paranormal romance subgenre. Most times, I conclude I’m the wrong reader and move on. What makes the check-in worthwhile is that there are books out there like Laura Anne Gilman’s Heart of Briar (which I reviewed here), books that use the conventions of paranormal romance to do something surprising, something stranger or more complex than the usual spectacle of exogamy-as-extreme-sport.

Cursed, the first volume in S.J. Harper’s Fallen Siren series, promises a bit more strangeness and depth than the average paranormal romance does. Harper’s heroine is a Siren, and it turns out there’s more to the Sirens’ myth than we all remember from reading Homer in high school. According to several actual ancient sources, the Sirens were Persephone’s companions and for their failure to save Persephone from Hades, Demeter cursed them. The Ancient Greek and Roman versions of the story disagree about the precise nature of the curse, which is just the sort of wiggle room modern writers love.

Since S. J. Harper is the pen name for a team of established romance writers, their version of the Sirens’ curse is that, until the Sirens have rescued enough innocents from abduction to satisfy Demeter for the loss of her daughter, they cannot die no matter what they suffer and they can never know love without losing the beloved. Losing in the worst possible ways. Harper’s interpretation of Demeter is the winter goddess of the barren Earth, all wrath and vengeance. As when the mythic Demeter would have allowed all humanity to starve while she went on strike, this Demeter has no qualms about destroying innocent men to torment the fallen goddesses who love them.

Do you sense that it’s a problem when the villainous dea ex machina in reverse is more interesting than the protagonists who get most of the time on stage? Yes, that would be the mismatch between book and reader showing. Or it might be an actual weakness of the book, but I don’t have the right readerly dopamine receptors to get romance novels, so I can’t be sure how its merits would look to a reader who does.

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The Series Series: Heart of Briar by Laura Anne Gilman

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Heart of Briar Laura Ann Gilman-smallShe got me. I didn’t expect to get caught up in this book, thought I would just read the first couple of chapters, because it’s not my usual kind of thing. Gilman uses some of the tropes of paranormal romance, but she’s using them to do bigger things, some of which I did not see coming.

If you’re severely allergic to romance, the virtues to be found in Heart of Briar will not be enough to balance the book for you, even though it is not clear at the end of this volume who the male romantic lead for the series will turn out to be. If you’re severely allergic to urban fantasy, you might not make it past the nice young geek couple looking up from their computer screens to discover, to their horror, a parallel society of supernatural beings that’s about to smash into their technology-centered happily ever after.

After my last review here, of a book that was inaccurately marketed as the first volume of a new series, I want to note how refreshing it is that this week’s title is, as promised on the cover, Book One of The Portals. It helps to know a little folklore, but even that’s unnecessary. Gilman has written plenty of books before. I haven’t read any of them. It’s possible there’s some crossover with her other series, but I never felt like I was out of the loop.

On the contrary, I usually felt like I was sometimes more in the loop than the protagonist was. Poor Jan is not a fantasy reader, did not consume volumes of folklore and mythology as a child, doesn’t know what she’s being warned about when the supernatural characters try to confess to her that they can’t be trusted. They’re good in their ways, which are fundamentally incompatible with human ways.

Fortunately for everyone in Jan’s world, she’s sufficiently brave, stubborn, devoted, and open-minded to catch up, keep up, and bring something new to the local shapeshifters’ efforts to repel an invasion from an extraordinarily hostile version of the Fae. Gilman’s fairyland bears a remarkable resemblance to the chilling otherworld of C.L. Moore’s great pulp sword and sorcery classic story “Black God’s Kiss.” Gilman’s elves behave in ways befitting extradimensional perils from a Clark Ashton Smith story. It’s a little jarring to see a book that uses some of the trappings of paranormal romance to give the vintage Weird Tales treatment to what starts out looking like a retelling of Tam Lin, but ultimately I think Heart of Briar succeeds at the strange balancing act it attempts. You see now why this novel was worth bringing to the attention of Black Gate readers?

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Urban Fantasy Corner: Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

10874177February is turning into a good month. A lot of great titles have caught my interest.

While not strictly urban fantasy — okay, okay, fine, steampunk — one of those would be Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage.

Carriger’s first series, Parasol Protectorate, was adult steampunk. Etiquette & Espionage, the first installment in the new YA series Finishing School, is set in the same world as Parasol Protectorate.

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to finishing school.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is the bane of her mother’s existence. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper etiquette at tea — and God forbid anyone see her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. She enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But little do Sophronia or her mother know that this is a school where ingenious young girls learn to finish, all right — but it’s a different kind of finishing. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s certainly trains young ladies in the finer arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but also in the other kinds of finishing: the fine arts of death, diversion, deceit, espionage, and the modern weaponries. Sophronia and her friends are going to have a rousing first year at school.

Etiquette & Espionage will be published February 5th by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It is 320 pages and priced at $17.99 in hardback. The digital edition is $8.99, and a three-chapter Kindle preview is currently free at

Urban Fantasy Corner: Leigh Evans’ The Trouble with Fate

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

13562334 Winter is a great time for some warm blooded critters, like werewolves. Leigh Evans’s debut novel The Trouble with Fate is a great place to start.

My name is Hedi Peacock and I have a secret. I’m not human, and I have the pointy Fae ears and Were inner-bitch to prove it. As fairy tales go, my childhood was damn near perfect, all fur and magic until a werewolf killed my father and the Fae executed my mother. I’ve never forgiven either side. Especially Robson Trowbridge. He was a part-time werewolf, a full-time bastard, and the first and only boy I ever loved. That is, until he became the prime suspect in my father’s death…

Today I’m a half-breed barista working at a fancy coffee house, living with my loopy Aunt Lou and a temperamental amulet named Merry, and wondering where in the world I’m going in life. A pretty normal existence, considering. But when a pack of Weres decides to kidnap my aunt and force me to steal another amulet, the only one who can help me is the last person I ever thought I’d turn to: Robson Trowbridge. And he’s as annoyingly beautiful as I remember. That’s the trouble with fate: Sometimes it barks. Other times it bites. And the rest of the time it just breaks your heart. Again…

While this debut is like a lot of urban fantasy novels out there, it does a couple things differently. Hedi (half-breed) and Trowbridge (were) aren’t the usual heroes. For non-humans they definitely feel human, with all the scars to prove it.

This was an impressive and fast-paced debut that had me organically feeling for the story — and characters — before I knew it.

The Trouble with Fate was published in December 2012 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. It is 368 pages and priced at $7.99 for both the mass market paperback and digital versions.

Urban Fantasy Corner: New Year, New Books

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

dead-ever-after-smallWith the arrival of the New Year, there are a lot of great titles on the horizon! Titles I would really like (hint, hint) to get my hands on. Here are three it’s particularly difficult to wait for.

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris.

Dead Ever After is book thirteen, and the final installment in the Sookie Stackhouse series. Love it or hate it, the end is here.

It sparked a T.V. show, HBO’s True Blood, and became a best-selling series. Both followed heroine Sookie through her misadventures of the supernatural nature. The last installment will hopefully provide the happily ever after this fan is craving.

There are secrets in the town of Bon Temps, ones that threaten those closest to Sookie—and could destroy her heart….

Sookie Stackhouse finds it easy to turn down the request of former barmaid Arlene when she wants her job back at Merlotte’s. After all, Arlene tried to have Sookie killed. But her relationship with Eric Northman is not so clearcut. He and his vampires are keeping their distance…and a cold silence. And when Sookie learns the reason why, she is devastated.

Then a shocking murder rocks Bon Temps, and Sookie is arrested for the crime.

But the evidence against Sookie is weak, and she makes bail. Investigating the killing, she’ll learn that what passes for truth in Bon Temps is only a convenient lie. What passes for justice is more spilled blood. And what passes for love is never enough…

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Urban Fantasy Corner: Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

halfway-to-the-graveWinter is coming… Wait! That’s the wrong series. But winter is coming, and it’s time for me to break from Urban Fantasy and dive into something to warm readers up: Paranormal Romance! Yes, love triangles, were-critters, and vampires with some major egos.

That’s why today I am going to push Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series, in many ways one of my guilty pleasures. The romance between the half-vampire heroine Cat and her self-assured vampire Bones might be one of my favorites. Unlike most PNR, Night Huntress follows the main couple, and doesn’t switch couples every book.

Frost always comes up with something new to drive between the main couple, and even though I feel pretty sure they will make it out all right, the twists are still jaw-dropping.

Warning: The Night Huntress is a romance, and it does have naughty scenes, along with raunchy humor. The series stands at six volumes, beginning with Halfway to the Grave.

Half-vampire Catherine Crawfield is going after the undead with a vengeance, hoping that one of these deadbeats is her father — the one responsible for ruining her mother’s life. Then she’s captured by Bones, a vampire bounty hunter, and is forced into an unholy partnership.

In exchange for finding her father, Cat agrees to train with the sexy night stalker until her battle reflexes are as sharp as his fangs. She’s amazed she doesn’t end up as his dinner — are there actually “good” vampires? Pretty soon Bones will have her convinced that being half-dead doesn’t have to be all bad. But before she can enjoy her newfound status as kick-ass demon hunter, Cat and Bones are pursued by a group of killers. Now Cat will have to choose a side… and Bones is turning out to be as tempting as any man with a heartbeat.

Halfway to the Grave was published in October 2007 by Avon. It is 384 pages and priced at $7.99 in Mass Market Paperback, and $4.99 for the digital version.

Urban Fantasy Corner: Jackson Pearce’s Fathomless

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

11985913I’ve seen a recent rise in fairy tales — in television shows, movies, and, most notably, books.

As it happens, fairy tales are right up my alley. I devour retellings like I devour leftover Halloween candy. This year, I got the chance to read Jackson Pearce’s Fathomless, the third book in her Fairy Tale Retelling series.

I don’t often pick up young adult novels. I’m oftentimes disappointed in either the story or the writing, but Fathomless took me by surprise. I like fairy tales to either feel whimsical or dark, maybe even a little creepy. Set in modern times, Fathomless is a dark retelling of The Little Mermaid. There are no flippers or fins, and no seashell bras. Just a darkly woven fairy tale brought up for modern day readers. It is told through the eyes of the sea girl, and the girl who steals her boy away. It weaves together both old fairy tale and new voice into a novel that borders on Gothic romance.

Celia Reynolds is the youngest in a set of triplets and the one with the least valuable power. Anne can see the future, and Jane can see the present, but all Celia can see is the past. And the past seems so insignificant — until Celia meets Lo.

Lo doesn’t know who she is. Or who she was. Once a human, she is now almost entirely a creature of the sea — a nymph, an ocean girl, a mermaid — all terms too pretty for the soulless monster she knows she’s becoming. Lo clings to shreds of her former self, fighting to remember her past, even as she’s tempted to embrace her dark immortality.

When a handsome boy named Jude falls off a pier and into the ocean, Celia and Lo work together to rescue him from the waves. The two form a friendship, but soon they find themselves competing for Jude’s affection. Lo wants more than that, though. According to the ocean girls, there’s only one way for Lo to earn back her humanity. She must persuade a mortal to love her… and steal his soul.

Fathomless was published in September 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It is 304 pages and priced at $17.99 in hardcover, and $9.99 for the digital version.

Urban Fantasy Corner: Ghosts

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

11515328Halloween (and immediately after) is a good time to talk about ghosts.

I’m not an expert. Not in literature, film, and certainly not in real-life experiences. I have no doubt that if I experienced a ghostly encounter of any kind, I would flip my lid.

But I’m a skeptic at heart. I have gone out on an actual ghost hunt. I didn’t see or hear anything. Only strange noises in the woods, but remember… it’s the woods. Lots of critters hunt at night.

I would never do the Blood Mary mirror game as a kid. Why tempt fate? I don’t watch scary movies, they scare me. Bottom line: I am a skeptic who is also a chicken.

On the other hand, I love stories about the fantastical. That includes ghosts.

Ghosts show up in modern and classical fiction, from Shakespeare to bodice rippers. They’ve been present in stories for as long as anyone can remember. They are our dead loved ones, frightening terrors, or even representations of our conscience.

The most haunting ghost story I have opened lately was Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, published in March 2012 by Roc. It’s about a schizophrenic woman who may or may not be haunted.

While not frightening, it has enough Gothic notes to send chills up this girl’s spine. Sometimes, it is all the in the details, and in this case, it’s in the beauty of Kiernan’s prose. It left a mood and impression that refuse to be forgotten.

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Urban Fantasy Corner: Linda Grimes’ In a Fix

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 | Posted by Beth Dawkins

In a FixDoes Urban Fantasy ever remind you of superheroes?

Not the entire genre, perhaps. But for the girl who grew up rotting her eyes out with superhero cartoons, much of it does.

Linda Grimes’s debut novel, In a Fix, reminded me of superheroes. Shape shifters are done all the time, but changing essences to look just like someone else isn’t done that often.

Not only did it bring something new to the table, but it’s also pretty funny.

Snagging a marriage proposal for her client while on an all-expenses-paid vacation should be a simple job for Ciel Halligan, aura adaptor extraordinaire. A kind of human chameleon, she’s able to take on her clients’ appearances and slip seamlessly into their lives, solving any sticky problems they don’t want to deal with themselves. No fuss, no muss. Big paycheck.

This particular assignment is pretty enjoyable…that is, until Ciel’s island resort bungalow is blown to smithereens and her client’s about-to-be-fiancé is snatched by modern-day Vikings. For some reason, Ciel begins to suspect that getting the ring is going to be a tad more difficult than originally anticipated.

Going from romance to rescue requires some serious gear-shifting, as well as a little backup. Her best friend, Billy, and Mark, the CIA agent she’s been crushing on for years-both skilled adaptors-step in to help, but their priority is, annoyingly, keeping her safe. Before long, Ciel is dedicating more energy to escaping their watchful eyes than she is to saving her client’s intended.

Suddenly, facing down a horde of Vikings feels like the least of her problems.

For me, Urban Fantasy doesn’t have to be snarky. I usually go for the darker stuff. I like my fiction to have a bite, a twist, anything that astounds me and takes my breath away. In a Fix is snarky and funny, two things I don’t look for in the genre, but which I loved in these pages.

There are honest laugh-out-loud moments that stay with the reader. Top the snarky with the fact that In a Fix is a debut novel, and I found myself astounded. I look forward to seeing how the next book stacks up.

In a Fix was published by Tor Books on September 4th 2012. It is 336 pages, and sells for $14.99 in paperback, $9.99 in digital format.


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