review: deadly descendant

Deadly Descendant by Jenna Black (2012)

Deadly Descendant is the second book in Jenna Black’s Nikki Glass/Immortal Huntress urban fantasy series.  I recommend reading these books in order, starting with the first in the series, Dark Descendant.  I’ll do my best not to spoil things that happen in the first book, but beware that spoilers may follow. Depending upon your point of view on serial fiction, one thing to know about this series if you’re considering giving it a try is that there are only going to be four full-length novels and one short novella.  I read on the author’s web page that the final novel in the series is going to be Divine Descendant, which is currently scheduled for a May 2016 release.  The world of Nikki Glass can be a little complicated so here’s a brief summary of what you need to know before you decide if you want to embark on the journey–Nikki is a private investigator living in Washington, D.C..  She is a descendant of the Greek goddess Artemis, and through events revealed in book one, she becomes immortal.  The books not only follow Nikki’s journey as she navigates this new world of immortals that she didn’t know existed before, but also work within the framework of a mystery/detective story, where Nikki and her supporting cast have to solve a series of murders and bring the murderer to justice.

The main plot of Deadly Descendant revolves around a group of murders that appear to be perpetrated by another immortal who seems to use a pack of wild dogs to kill his victims.  To be honest, there is a lot going on in this story in terms of exploring some overarching thematic questions.  One includes the question of what should be the fate of the murderer once he/she is apprehended? Anderson, the leader of the group of immortals that has taken Nikki into their community and is helping her learn about the new world she’s been thrust into as an immortal descendant of mythological gods and goddesses, has the power to destroy other immortals, something that other immortals do not have. One of the through-lines of the plot is whether or not Anderson should destroy the murderer, whether the culprit should be turned over to the Olympians–a sect of immortals descended specifically from the Greek gods, who view themselves being superior and able to act with impunity and whose philosophy is diametrically opposed to Anderson’s and his small group of followers–for them to carry out whatever justice they see fit, or if some other punishment is fitting. It’s an interesting question, and both Nikki and Anderson have very strong opinions about the “right” course of action to take, and it is another way in which we find Nikki viewing the world in black and white and refusing to see the shades of grey (more on that later).

Beyond the primary plot of the story are two subplots that give Black further opportunities to explore some larger thematic concerns.  One is the question of revenge and vengeance and the other is a look at the era of slavery in Civil War America.  The narrative is told through Nikki’s first-person point of view, so everything that the other characters reveal is filtered through her own consciousness, biases, and values.  In terms of vengeance, this comes into play with the character of Emma who is Anderson’s wife.  She has been a victim of violence, and throughout the story we’re invited to see how that violence has changed her and think about if it is her experiences or the core of who she is that causes her to seek vengeance, regardless of the costs that such vengeance would require.  For me, it’s difficult to draw a line with Emma’s character because on the one hand you empathize with her but on the other you can’t help thinking she’s going too far.  It’s not easy to dismiss her actions or her behavior, but it’s also not easy to accept.  She’s a character who exists in the grey, maybe even tending toward the darkness, and yet you can’t help wondering if her experiences have pushed her there and if there’s any other way she could be expected react.  In addition to the question of vengeance, Black explores the institution of slavery during the Civil War in the character of Jamaal.  During the story we learn that he was a slave and the son of his master, and as he recounts his history, Black offers a perspective on his experiences that once again make the reader think.  They show how Jamaal, like Emma, has been shaped by his experiences and all that he has endured, and when looked at side by side, readers are forced to think about how Jamaal and Emma have reacted to oppression and violence and draw whatever conclusions they will.

Another aspect of the novel that I find interesting is Nikki’s character.  She is a complicated character, and like I said above, she tends to see the world and people in black and white.  She is convinced that she knows what the “right” thing to do is when it comes to how to handle the murderer, and she refuses to see Anderson’s point of view or consider why he might hold a different opinion.  This same refusal to see the perspectives of others pops up near the end of the book with Blake, who happens to be dating Nikki’s sister.  Again, Nikki feels that she knows what’s best, and though she listens to what Blake has to say, she doesn’t ever really try to empathize or even walk a mile in his shoes.  This particular character trait isn’t the same as being conflicted–I think it’s rare that Nikki is actually conflicted.  Still, it makes her more complicated because at the same that she thinks she knows what’s best for others or what course of action they should take, she is resolutely against anyone else–Anderson, Jamaal, or her sister–giving her any advice on her own life.  Or maybe this actually just fits in perfectly with her character.  It’s arrogance, and yet it doesn’t make me like Nikki any less.  I like her as a character, but at the same time she is emotionally unavailable to the people in her life.  She doesn’t let herself make connections and these are things I can relate to.  I can even understand why she is this way, but…there’s just a part of me that wants her to learn how to bend, how to compromise, how to see someone else’s point of view, and understand that not everything is black and white, good or evil, and that no one is wholly good or evil.

I think I’m way over the 1000 word limit I try to set for myself with these book reviews, but that’s because this book is a lot more than just an empty urban fantasy/detective story.  There’s a lot to think about and I applaud Black for the effort.  I have no idea how this series ends but I’m definitely going to keep reading it. The next installment in the series is the novella, Pros and Cons, which takes place chronologically between books 2 and 3 in the series.

Have you read the Nikki Glass/Immortal Huntress series?  If so, what do you think?


review: the devil you know

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (2007)

I tried really hard not to allow myself to do this, but alas, I have no willpower when it comes to books.  The Devil You Know by Mike Carey is the first in a series featuring exorcist Felix “Fix” Castor, and although I’ve been trying to avoid starting a new series this year, I took only forty-five days for me to fail at my goal.  Oh well.  Moving on.

The world Carey creates and that Castor inhabits is present-day London, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this into the urban fantasy genre.  What makes this London just a little different is that the dead have risen–not all of them, of course, but enough for the people of the world to notice.  Ghosts are also visible to the common, everyday person.  This is where Castor comes in–he’s a modern-day Ghostbuster.  If you have an “infestation” so to speak, he’s the guy you call.  Or that is, he was.  Until the start of this story, Castor had turned away from the life of exorcism because of a mistake that had great consequences for one of his friends.  To make money, Castor intends to set himself as a magician to perform for children’s parties, but the opening tableau of the novel demonstrates that this is not going to be a successful endeavor for him.  Just in time, it seems, he’s offered a job to exorcise a ghost that is haunting a building that houses a document archive.  At first he refuses, but events conspire and he reluctantly accepts the job.  From here, Castor’s skills and experience with exorcism blend into a nascent desire to solve the mystery surrounding the ghost and why she is haunting this specific place to begin with.  It is, in a way, the origin story for a exorcist-cum-detective.  In fact, although this book has the element of the supernatural, I’d actually more firmly place it in the detective fiction genre than urban fantasy.

But don’t go thinking that Castor falls into the mode of Philip Marlowe.  The Devil You Know does incorporate elements of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction.  There’s the mystery within the mystery that is intricate and takes time for Castor to unravel.  There’s the femme fatale in the form of Juliet, a succubus that is raised from Hell to kill Castor.  There’s the fact that the plot itself involves the seedy underbelly of the city.  One of the other things about the novel that reminds me of Raymond Chandler is the lush prose and diction.  Here’s an example: “Polished bare boards bore the muddy paw prints of early-evening punters.” I read that sentence several times and couldn’t help but admire Carey’s style. I should probably say here that American readers not accustomed to British phrases and idioms might find themselves a little puzzled by some of the things Castor says in narrating his story, but it’s not so pervasive that it would discourage casual readers.  The narrative is told from a first-person point-of-view, and as a narrator Castor is engaging and pulls me into the story.  However, there are times when the narrative pace really slows down, and to be honest, the novel is a bit slow.  The moment when this is most noticeable is during an exposition-heavy chapter where Castor confronts the murderer and details how and why the murder occurred.  The momentum that the narrative had managed to build up to that point comes to a crashing halt, and this particular chapter is the one that precedes the crisis and final showdown.  So you know what happened, how the various characters were involved, and why the ghost is haunting the archive.  At the same time, I felt like I was slogging through this part as I was reading.  It’s a first-person narrative, and Castor does move from place to place as he investigates the case and this helps drive the story, but at the same time, it feels like there’s very little action.

Since this is the first in a series, I would usually want to talk about the supporting cast. There’s not one to speak of to any great extent in The Devil You Know.  The person who Castor is closest to is his friend and landlady, Pen. He lives in her house, and they were at university together.  Pen also happens to be the old lover of Rafi, the person I named above who Castor tried to exorcise a ghost from, only to find that his friend was actually possessed by a demon.  Castor also has a brother–Matt–who makes one appearance in the novel, and I could see him popping up in future books.  Finally, there’s Juliet the succubus, who seems to be staying in Castor’s world.  Really, though, that’s about it, and I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.  Rafi’s story is definitely not at a close, and although Juliet promises to be interesting at the very least, she and Pen are still mostly unknown quantities and their roles in the series going forward remain very much a mystery.

The natural question I always ask myself after reading the first book in a series–will I read more?  It surprises me how difficult it is for me to give a definitive answer to this question because honestly, my response is I don’t know.  Maybe.  Maybe not. It’s like that pilot episode of a new show where you’re not necessarily turned off, but you’re not waiting impatiently for the next episode either; where you don’t know if you should give it a second chance to impress you or cut your losses now.  Right now, I’m not sure which way I’m going to go.

Have you read this series? If so, does it get better?

review: caged

Caged by Lorelei James (2015)

Although Caged is the fourth book in Lorelei James’ Mastered series, it can absolutely stand alone.  The story focuses upon two characters that were peripheral in the first book in the series.  Molly Calloway is the female protagonist, and if you’re new to the series what you need to know about her is that she was mugged, and afterwards she enrolled in a self-defense class taught at Black Arts dojo.  Deacon McConnell, the male protagonist, is an instructor at Black Arts but he also is a fighter in the dojo’s MMA training program. This is a romance, so the summary of the novel is exactly what you’d expect–they meet, they breakup, they makeup and live happily ever after.

I’m still pondering the rise of the MMA fighter as a trendy male character in romance novels, but it works in this book; in fact, perhaps it is this very aspect of Deacon’s character that is critical to his development because in many ways this particular career choice marginalizes him.  The shaved head, the tattoos, and the aggression of the sport further push him to the fringes. It also gives James the opportunity to breakdown a stereotype (even if she does so in a conventional way).  His relationship with Molly gives him a connection to another person, and because of it the friendships he’s made with the instructors at Black Arts appear to deepen. By the end of the story, he’s also able to reconcile some of his family issues.  The loner is no longer a loner or a social outcast.  He is no longer the man apart or the man alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Molly, a woman who has been touched by violence and struggles to find a way to make herself feel safe and learn how to protect herself. The thing I like the most about the way James characterizes Molly is that the self-defense and kickboxing classes she has been taking grew out of a need to know that she could take care of herself, and in the process she’s not only found the physical strength she needs to do that but she’s also discovered her own inner strength that she draws upon repeatedly throughout the story, from dealing with her bully cousins to handling her relationship with Deacon.  The thing that Molly struggles with throughout the story–and is also the thing she must overcome in order to achieve growth as a character–is her unreasonable expectations for how the man she loves shares his secrets and his past.  That is to say, she must learn that emotional intimacy is not easy nor does everyone share as easily or willingly as others.  Maybe what it boils down to is a lesson in patience, and for Molly it’s a hard lesson to learn where Deacon is concerned.

I read a lot of romance novels, and this means that there are a lot of bad romance novels on my digital bookshelf.  Gratefully, Caged doesn’t fall into that category.  In case you missed it, I like my genre fiction (romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, suspense) to be edgy in some kind of way, I like my characters to be relatable, believable, and either likable or brilliant in the way they make me dislike them. I want the story to make me think about my own life in some way or another. I want it to be difficult for me to put the book down. I want the ending to be satisfying.  Caged hits these marks for me.  I could absolutely relate to the way that Deacon isn’t nearly as open or forthcoming with the details of his past as Molly wants him to be.  I get the way he has trouble communicating and isn’t big on talking about stuff.  The way that he struggles to share his thoughts and emotions and build an emotional bond with Molly is something that is familiar to me, and the way Molly’s inner strength and self-reliance has evolved since book one in this series is something else that resonates with me.

This is all to say I would recommend this book. I’m relatively new to Lorelei James’ work, but having read a couple of books by her now, I definitely won’t hesitate to read more.  I like her style of writing, and I so much appreciate the way she tells the story in third-person from Molly’s and Deacon’s points-of-view and doesn’t stray to other points-of-view. This keeps the novel focused and the story moving. It also induces me to become invested in the main characters and remain invested in them as the story unfolds. The more book reviews I write, the more I realize how much the narrative style affects how much I enjoy the novel. If you’re looking for your next read, pick this one up or Bound if you want to start with the first book in the series.



review: “devil in the dollhouse”

“Devil in the Dollhouse” by Richard Kadrey (2012)

In the timeline of the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, this is designated as number 3.5 since it comes after the third book in the series, Aloha From Hell and before Devil Said Bang, the fourth book. The story happens three days after the end of Aloha From Hell, and finds Stark trying to, literally, survive his first days as the new Lucifer and King of Hell.

Stark refers to his predecessor as Lucifer 1.0 so I’ll continue with that to keep it simple. There Stark is, sitting in Lucifer 1.0’s office, when two spies appear and tell him that in order to solidify his position as the new Lucifer, Stark needs to complete a quest that Lucifer was about to begin before he managed to return to Heaven.  Though he has no real desire to pursue the quest, he agrees, and “Devil in the Dollhouse” becomes a kind of quest tale and eventually presents with a figure that maybe is supposed to resemble the Fisher King, or at least Hell’s version of it.  Stark’s mission is to make his way to Henoch Breach, a kind of waste land fraught with perilous trials that he must overcome to reach his destination–which is to destroy the monsters who live there and exist as nightmares for Hellions.  As he moves toward his destination, Stark must go through a series of “rings”–one of fire, one of regret–and then he must also successfully survive the monsters and reach the fortress where the father of the horrible monsters the Hellions fear resides.  On his quest he is given a guide, Geryon, who is a scholar and is able to tell Stark the myths and origins of Henoch Breach.

The witty, snarky and sarcastic tone of Stark’s first person narration is very much present, though there does seem to be something missing–maybe that’s because this is a short story and there’s not enough “space” to give everything more depth.  Though, I love the way the Stark starts to tell his story.  “Hi. I’m the Devil. No, Seriously.” I also really like the way the story ends, which I won’t spoil here but it definitely makes you wonder how or if this little episode will affect Stark in the novels that follow.  Ultimately, I think this short story is an interesting glimpse into what Stark’s new life as “Lucifer 2.0” will be like, what struggles he’ll have to deal with if he ever intends to make it back topside and how he was finally accepted as the new Lucifer and not just a pretender to the King of Hell’s throne.  It’s worth your time if you like this series.