Only the most recent posts pop up on the HOME page. For searchable lists of titles/series reviewed on this Blog, click on one of the Page Tabs above. On each Page, click on the series name to go directly to my review.

AUTHOR SEARCH lists all authors reviewed on this Blog. CREATURE SEARCH groups all of the titles/series by their creature types. The RATINGS page explains the violence, sensuality, and humor (V-S-H) ratings codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their Ratings. The PLOT TYPES page explains the SMR-UF-CH-HIS codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their plot types. On this Blog, when you see a title, an author's name, or a word or phrase in pink type, this is a link. Just click on the pink to go to more information about that topic.

Monday, December 31, 2012



I have just updated a previous post for Kerrelyn Sparks with a review of the thirteenth book in her LOVE AT STAKE SERIES: Wild About You. 

Click on either the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Author:  Joseph Nassise   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy UF)/Horror  
Ratings:  Violence-4; Sensuality-0-3; Humor-1-2
Publisher and Titles:  Tor
          Eyes to See (6/2012)
          King of the Dead (11/2012)
          Watcher of the Dark (11/2013)  

     This post was revised and updated on 12/27/13 to include a review of Watcher of the Dark, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and reviews of novels 1 and 2:  

          NOVEL 3:  Watcher of the Dark          
      In the third novel, Jeremiah Hunt's life takes another dark turn as he finds himself kidnapped by Carlos Fuentes, the Magister of Los Angeles, and forced to use his ghost-managing powers to assist in a series of midnight burglaries. Hunt can't go to the police for help because law enforcement agencies all over the country are searching for him, including his FBI nemesis, Dale Robertson. When Hunt learns that Fuentes is searching for the three pieces that make up an ancient, magical artifact, he decides to stick around for awhile. That decision is reinforced when the Preacher turns up and commands Hunt to retrieve that artifact because he wants it for himself. The artifact, by the way, is called "the Key." This is such a familiar trope that any reader of paranormal fiction will understand immediately what the bad guys plan to open with the ancient, magical Key.

     Meanwhile, Hunt has no idea where Dmitri and Denise are or even if Denise is still alive. In the climactic ending to the previous book, Hunt had to save Denise by stabbing a magical athame through her heart, and he's not sure that she lived through the experience. Fuentes is aware of Hunt's feelings for Denise and Dmitri, and he claims that he will have them killed if Hunt doesn't cooperate.

     The story follows Hunt as he becomes part of Fuentes' magical team, which includes a beautiful half-demon; a Gifted human douser (who can find anything or anyone); a powerful sorcerer; and a non-magical, but highly skilled, human thief. He soon learns that some of them are being held against their will, but that at least one is completely loyal to Fuentes. As Hunt tries to make friends with the team members and with the household staff, he learns more and more about Fuentes and his plans for the Key. Hunt realizes that he will have to figure out a way to defeat both Fuentes and the Preacher if he wants to save his friends and himself from mortal peril.

     Along the way, Hunt has a fateful run-in with a fierce and powerful spectre who wants revenge on Fuentes and drags the unwilling (and, at first, unknowing) Hunt into his vengeful activities as a human tool.

     This book is marginally better than the first two, but there are still some distracting plot bumps. For example, Hunt eavesdrops on a conversation between Fuentes and Rivera (the sorcerer) in which they discuss Durante (a dead man) and his assistant, whom Fuentes believes knows the whereabouts of the Key. Then, later in the story, Hunt does some research on Durante and discovers that the assistant was Durante's lover. Eventually, Hunt tracks down the assistant, but then he is surprised to find that Fuentes is looking for the guy. Wait a minute…Wasn't Hunt paying attention to the conversation he overheard, when Fuentes told Rivera, "I want you to find that whiny bastard"?

     In another (unnecessary) scene (in chapter 15), Fuentes sends Hunt out to work on one of his construction crewsduring the day, when Hunt is basically blind. Besides the blindness issue, Hunt has been grabbed because of his magical powers, so why wear him out hefting "bags of concrete and stacks of lumber, loading them onto trucks at one location and then unloading them at the next."? (p. 115) This happens only once and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, so my question is this: why include such an improbable scene in the first place?

     Here's another one: About halfway through the story, Hunt begins to have blackoutsgoing to sleep in his own bed, but then suddenly waking up behind the wheel of a car or in another person's bed. The first two times this happens, he brushes it off, telling himself, "Stranger things had happened, I knew, so I didn't try to analyze it too much." (p. 157) Hunt's lack of reaction to these blackouts seemed utterly improbable to me. This is a smart guy who knows his way around the magical world. Why isn't he stopped in his tracks by these incidents? Why doesn't he make some attempt to figure out what's happening until much, much later in the story?

     Finally, there's the scene (p. 165) in which Hunt learns that Durante was the Magister of Los Angeles before he died. That fact is mentioned only in that single scene and it really is unnecessary to the plot. Durante's importance has nothing to do with his position as Magister; it relates to his strong magical powers and to his possession of the Key. Even if the author is using this as a set-up for a rivalry between Fuentes and Durante that ends in Durante's murder, it is still unnecessary because what Fuentes really wants is the Key. He would have killed Durante for that reason alone. This comes across as an authorial attempt to make the plot a bit more complex, but in reality, it just muddies it up.

     The book ends in the requisite showdown, but leaves a number of loose ends. On the author's web site, he calls this series a trilogy, but this third book doesn't really end Hunt's woes. Will there be a fourth book? I'll be on the lookout and I'll update this post as soon as I can dig up any information.

     Nassise is a good story teller, with a nice use of the first-person voice and a talent for pacing, but plotting is definitely not his strong point. So far, the primary suspense has revolved around the slow, but fascinating, development of Hunt's powers, particularly his growing control over his blindness. At this point in the series, he can steal sight from ghosts, steal sight from humans, and use ghost sight (to view the preternatural world). In this book, he acquires special sunglasses that allow him to see in daylight. His magical powers of music seem to be gradually getting stronger as well. By now, he can usually figure out rather quickly just what type of music will calm an angry ghost. 

     What the series lacks is a clear and cohesive series story arc. Yes, we have the enigmatically evil Preacher and the horde of law enforcement agencies that are after Hunt for crimes he didn't commit, but what is the end game? Is there a metaphorical one-armed man in Hunt's future who will prove Hunt's innocence? What has to happen to get the Preacher out of Hunt's life permanently?  Even the famous fugitive, Richard Kimble, wasn't just running for the sake of running. He knew what his purpose was: to track down the evidence to get his life back. Hunt just seems to be running with no real goal in mind. For me, that's what is missing here.  

     Once again, great cover art by Cliff Nielsen! Click HERE to go to the Watcher of the Dark page on, where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art at top left.

      In this alternate Boston, the population of the living (aka the Normals) is 95% plain vanilla human, but the rest is made up of a whole host of supernatural creatures and a small number of the Gifted—humans who have magical talents. Here, the leading character explains: "First you have the Normals. They're your average, everyday people, without any particular abilities....Then you have the Preternaturals, creatures out of myth and legend that live among the rest of us like wolves among sheep....Vampires, revenants, and shape shifters. Goblins, ghosts, and ghouls. Nagas. Chimeras. Kengu. Lamia. Spider folk. The list goes on and on. Demons of every shape and color are particularly prominent among the upper reaches of Boston society life, and...I've even caught a glimpse here and there of...angels. Finally you have the Gifted....who, either by nature or design, have abilities above and beyond the average. The woman born with the sixth sense. The guy who suffers a terrible head injury, and awakens with the ability to hear the thoughts of those in the room....humans who have gained the ability to tap into the supernatural essence of the world and use it for their own means." (p. 68)

    The Preternaturals use glamours to disguise their true forms so that they can live openly among the Normals, but the deadthe ghostsare completely invisible to most people. These ghosts come in all sorts of types and personalities, including harmless spirits, mischievous poltergeists, and insane spectres. Ghosts in this world don't like the color red, and they can use mirrors as portals to travel from one place to another. Ghosts are held to the mortal world by fetters, physical objects that tie a ghost to a particular location. If you destroy a ghost's fetter, you destroy the ghost.   

     This series is obviously aimed at fans of Jim Butcher's THE DRESDEN FILES, but it's definitely not at DRESDEN's level of quality, suspense, or readability
at least not in the first two books. Here are some similarly themed series that you may enjoy. Click on the series title to see a chronological list of titles and to read my reviews: Benedict Jacka's ALEX VERUS SERIES, Kate Griffin's MATTHEW SWIFT SERIES, Kevin Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, Jim C. Hines's MAGIC EX LIBRUS SERIES, Ben Aaronovitch's PETER GRANT/RIVERS OF LONDON SERIES, Anton Strout's SIMON CANDEROUS SERIES, and Alex Hughes' MINDSPACE INVESTIGATIONS SERIES. And, of course, you can always read Butcher's fantastic, seminal series—the granddaddy of them all. 

     The best thing about the books in this series is their cover art by Cliff Nielsen, who also created the cover art for Cassandra Clare's INFERNAL DEVICES SERIES, among others. Click HERE to read his Wikipedia article.

          BOOK 1:  Eyes to See          
    Five years ago, Jeremiah Hunt's young daughter, Elizabeth, disappeared without a trace, and he has dedicated his life since then to finding her. As a result of his obsession, he has lost his wife, his job as a Harvard classics professor, and his eyesight. Now he lives in a run-down, boarded-up house that is protected by a tall iron fence and surrounded by a moat with running water that he built himself. Needless to say, Jeremiah is a bit paranoid about security. Jeremiah's blindness came as an unexpected side-effect of a spell that he cast in the hopes that it would help him find Elizabeth. His blindness isn't the normal kind of human blindness. Jeremiah can't see a thing if there is any light, but he can see shapes and movement if he is in total darkness. His blindness also has a supernatural twist: He can "borrow" the sight of one of his two ghostly sidekicks: a little girl named Whisper (aka Abigail Matthews) and her father, Scream (aka Thomas Matthews), a huge, tough ghost who comes to Jeremiah's rescue when anyone tries to harm him. Later in the story, Hunt learns to "borrow" sight from living people. 

     Another side effect of Jeremiah's blindness is that he can "see" people for who they really are. With his "ghost sight," he can see the glamours that the Preternaturals use as disguises, and he can recognize Gifted people as being more than human. He can also see (and feel) all of the ghosts and preternaturals that swarm through the streets and buildings of Boston.  

     Jeremiah's main human contact is homicide Detective Miles Stanton, whom Jeremiah met during the early investigation of his daughter's disappearance. Stanton has come to believe that Jeremiah is a psychic, so in exchange for giving Jeremiah any new information on Elizabeth's case, Stanton requires Jeremiah to assist him at crime scenes. Of course, Jeremiah isn't a psychic, but he can't really explain that he is using Whisper's ghostly sight to look for clues that wouldn't be evident to humans. Currently, Stanton and Jeremiah are working on a series of murders in which the victims' bodies are arranged in strange positions with no evidence as to their cause of death.

     At two of the crime scenes, Jeremiah finds (and keeps) small pewter charms that are identical to the charms on a bracelet that he had an artist custom make for his long-missing daughter, Elizabeth. As the killings continue, he finds more clues that link this serial killer to Elizabeth's disappearance. This whole issue with the bracelet is one of the early plot problems. Apparently, Elizabeth's parents gave her not one, but two custom-made charm bracelets, one of which she was wearing when she disappeared. Since the other one is still in her jewelry box, Jeremiah is able to match up the charms. My problem with this situation is the idea that the parents would have two nearly identical bracelets made for their daughter. The whole idea of a charm bracelet is that you give the child one bracelet and then keep gifting her with charms to commemorate events in her life. The second bracelet is obviously a plot device that allows Jeremiah to compare the crime-scene charms, so that makes it an overt and awkward manipulation on the part of the author, one of many in this book.  

    As the story line advances, Jeremiah keeps looking for clues and connections. Soon, two more characters are added to his friends list: Dmitri Alexandrov, a Gifted human who owns a local bar, and Denise Clearwater, a hedge witch who has been having disturbing dream visions about Jeremiah. The two of them join Jeremiah's cause about half way through the book. Eventually, of course, there is a violent, climactic showdown in a spooky old building, and the hero lives to fight another day. (We know this ahead of time because Eyes to See is just the first book in Jeremiah's series.)

     The premise of the book—the magically blinded, ghost-seeing, tragic hero—is fresh and inventive, but the story-telling doesn't bear up under scrutiny. Too many of Jeremiah's clues come through amazing coincidences, and his jumps to correct conclusions are frequently made on very thin and/or very conveniently provided evidence. Jeremiah tells most of his story in the first person, and that works well enough, but at some points, the author switches to the third person point of view from other perspectives—first, Denise, and then later, Stanton and the killer. This is not always successful because it tends to interrupt the flow of the story. 

     The meant-to-be-dramatic scenes are dulled by a plodding narrative that is frequently interrupted for unnecessary info-dumps of background information about various aspects of magic. For example, Here is part of a paragraph that is plopped into what starts out to be a dramatic scene in which Denise and Jeremiah meet for the first time: "She explained that wards were one of the mainstays of modern magick and were used to form a shell of protection around a specific location, person, or object. They came in two types: minor and major. Minor wards were just what the name implied, minor magicks that could be used to protect an object or a location for the short term. These could be performed by a single individual with limited preparation, often on the fly...Major wards differed entirely, intended to last indefinitely and requiring several days of preparation by a sorcerer with considerable power, using the assistance of several acolytes. Major wards were not undertaken lightly, and the slightest  mistake could have disastrous consequences." (p. 151) None of this information has any purpose in the ongoing plot, so why interrupt the flow like this. Unfortunately, the book contains many, many examples of this interest-stifling, story-padding material. This is an urban fantasy/horror novel, so I'm not looking for extraneous background information that is not tied directly to the advancement of the plot.

     All the way through the story, the reader can feel the author's awkward manipulation of various circumstances. The worst is a scene towards the end when Jeremiah returns to his home and fails to notice certain alterations to its usual secure, locked-up-tight condition. Jeremiah blames his inattention on his preoccupation with the case and on exhaustion, but...please. How can he not realize that his multi-padlocked iron gate has been ripped apart, his moat pump has been trashed, and his always-locked front door is standing wide open. But Jeremiah doesn't notice any of this. He simply trudges past all of the destruction, enters directly into the house, and then is absolutely blindsided by what is waiting for him inside. This is probably the most improbable scene in the entire book. There is also some sloppy editing: In another chapter, Denise mentions that she saw the killer in a vision that included some street art, but she hasn't yet had that visionit comes several pages later. 

     I had trouble connecting with Jeremiah, even though his tragic back-story is fully developed in alternating chapters (all entitled "Then") that flash back to the events surrounding the kidnapping five years ago. Jeremiah is obviously a grief-stricken father, but I never really felt his anguish. As for the supporting characters, they are simply sketched in, with little or no development. 

     So...there are a number of rough spots in characterization and plot development (not the least of which is the murkiness of the explanation for why Elizabeth was kidnapped in the first place; and where on earth did that harmonica-playing come from?), but if you can "read through" the unnecessary details and if you don't think too hard about the implausibility of some of the events, the story might be appealing to you. 

     Not to be pedantic, but here's one last point: I have mentioned in previous paragraphs that the author has taken great pains to research and explain various aspects of mythology and magic, but there is one area of realism that he has obviously failed to study. That subject is the proper procedures that sighted people should use when guiding blind people (and I speak from the experience of having a blind family member). All the way through the story, people keep grabbing Jeremiah's arm and pulling him along with them. That's exactly the WRONG way to go about guiding a blind person. A sighted person should allow the blind person to take hold of the guide's arm directly above the elbow. Then the guide should walk along at a moderate pace, in effect leading the blind person but also giving him or her some control. Please Mr. Nassise, click HERE to read "Being a Sighted Guide" (published by the American Federation for the Blind) and teach those lessons to Hunt's friends, Denise and Dmitri, so that they can learn to be more considerate of Hunt in future books. 

     Click HERE to go to the Eyes to See page on, where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover at top left.

         BOOK 2:  King of the Dead          
    The story opens with Jeremiah, Denise, and Dmitri on the run from FBI agent Dale Robertson, who is convinced that Hunt is the infamous Reaper murderer responsible for the multiple homicides that were the focus of book 1. The improbable and flimsy presumption for this manhunt is that  Hunt, a blind man who hasn't left Boston for more than five years, is responsible for a series of gruesome murders spread all over the U.S. Basing this book and future books on this tenuous manhunt theme is a huge weakness in the series story arc. The author has set up Hunt and Robertson as a modern-day Richard Kimble and Philip Gerard, but without a trace of the plausibility of that classic story.   

     In the first chapter, the author recapitulates the events of the previous book and summarizes each character's back-story. Usually an author will rephrase that type of information, but Nassise takes the easy way out by copying whole paragraphs from book 1 and pasting them into book 2 verbatim. (Check out the matching paragraphs about Berserkers on p. 16 in book 2 and p. 252 in book 1; also, see the matching paragraphs about ghosts on p. 40 in book 2 and p. 50 in book 1.)

     The plot kicks off when Denise has a series of visions showing New Orleans in various stages of apocalyptic destruction. She talks her companions into traveling south to provide assistance, and they soon find themselves in the midst of another set of serial killings. This time the victims have had their souls sucked out of them by Sorrows, who are mythological, wraith-like creatures. Soon after the trio arrives in New Orleans, they are summoned to appear before the Lord Marshal of the city, who represents the High Council of New Orleans. Apparently in this world, each major city has a High Council and a Lord Marshall—except Boston, I guess, because there was no evidence of either of these in book 1. The Lord Marshall turns out to be Simon Gallagher, a battle mage who is a former colleague of both Denise and Dmitri.

     The rest of the story follows Hunt, Denise, Dmitri, and Gallagher as they attempt to track down and destroy the Sorrows and the person or creature that is commanding them. Agent Robertson and his sidekick also come into play as they arrive in the midst of the requisite climactic showdown and nearly gum up the works. The book ends in a cliffhanger as Hunt once again finds himself alone in the world.

     Once again, the plot has some major bumps and potholes. For example, up until now, Denise has had her visions in a relatively calm manner, with little effort and no evidence of physical discomfort, but during one vision in this story she goes into a full seizure—screaming and twitching and totally out of control. Of course, this happens at the climax of a critical scene during the fugitives' danger-filled road trip when a state trooper pulls them over for a minor traffic violation. The author obviously needs to leave a clue for Agent Robertson as to their whereabouts, and this is how he decides to do it—another conspicuous and awkward plot manipulation, of which there are many. Another false note for this particular vision is that it is the only one that Denise cannot remember after it is over. That lack of memory is just dropped into the story line and never referred to again. Why does she have the seizure? Why doesn't she remember this vision? Who knows? The characters, including Denise, simply shrug off this  odd and alarming event.  

     Hunt takes a number of implausible actions as the story advances. For example, early in the story, he checks into a motel, playing up the fact that he is blind, while his companions stay out of sight. Hunt explains to Dmitri, "No one is looking for a blind guy." (p. 58) Several chapters later, he hangs back from the registration procedure at another motel because he doesn't want the desk clerk to see that he is blind. He explains, "I didn't want to make it obvious that I was blind. We were a long way from Boston, but the proliferation of shows like America's Most Wanted meant it was best if we kept as low a profile as possible." (p. 70) Why is Hunt waffling like this? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this change in his behavior

    In some cases, Nassise seems to be making up his mythology for Hunt as he goes along because in this book, Hunt develops new powers that are mostly unexplained to the reader. In several instances, he triggers his ghost sight without "borrowing" sight from either a ghost or a human. In another example, Hunt's harmonica-playing (which popped up out of nowhere near the end of book 1) has now become an integral part of his growing magical skills, with Hunt now being able to call up and command ghosts through his weird melodies. In  the closing battle, Hunt unexpectedly develops even more new and powerful magical powers that even he doesn't recognize or understand (and neither does the reader). That last set of skills is probably connected somehow to Denise, but it's impossible to tell at this point because no explanation is given.

     The point of view switches back and forth from first-person Hunt to third-person Denise Clearwater. In an off-putting mannerism, Hunt and Dmitri frequently refer to their female companion as "Clearwater," but other times they call her "Denise." Hunt has an obvious crush on Denise, so it's jarring to hear him call her "Clearwater" when he's speaking to her. (Hunt began doing this in book 1 and continues it here.)

    Once again, there is a continuity error when, in one scene (p. 203), Hunt and Dmitri raid an armory for weapons, and then a few pages later (p. 209) Hunt says that he and Gallagher gathered the weapons. Surely a good editor should have caught this.

     I was hoping that this series would get better, but I have to say that I'm disappointed in this second book. Click HERE to go to the King of the Dead page on, where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover at top left.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Author:  Anton Strout     
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)   
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          Alchemystic (9/2012)
          Stonecast (10/2013)  
          Incarnate (9/2014) (FINAL)  

     This post was revised and updated on 10/27/14 to include a review of Incarnate, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review the first two books.  

               NOVEL 3: Incarnate               
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the previous book. Incarnate is the final novel in this trilogy, and as such it is best read in the context of the first two novels, not as a stand-alone.

     As a result of Lexi’s spell gone awry that ended book 2, thousands of sentient, super-strong, confused gargoyles are loose in Manhattan, where they are attacking humans, destroying property, and generally wreaking havoc. When Alexandra (Lexi) Belarus cast her spell, she inadvertently called forth the “disquieted spirits that have been unable…to pass on to the afterlife,” and those spirits entered and brought stony life to every gargoyle in Manhattan. Improbably, most people—including the police department—don’t realize that supernatural monsters are creating the destruction. Even in this age of cell phone cameras, the humans are blaming the chaos on criminals or extreme weather events or general craziness. Alex, of course, is riddled with guilt over the horrific situation she has caused and spends every night roaming the city with her friend, Rory, trying to capture gargoyles, subdue them, and turn them over to Stanis. Stanis has created a Sanctuary for the gargoyles who can be reasoned with, but he has to destroy those who refuse to cease their destructive behavior.

     Besides hunting down and being attacked by gargoyles, Lexi is trying to avoid two NYPD detectives who believe that she is the “puppet master” behind the gargoyle attacks. The detectives are the equivalent of Scully on the X-Files shows because neither one believes in the supernatural. At one point, they explain to Lexi that they were chosen to deal with all the crackpot situations in Manhattan because one is a dedicated World of Warcraft gamer and the other is a voracious reader of paranormal romances. Sounds about right!

     Lexi is also on the run from the witches and warlocks of Manhattan, who believe that her faulty gargoyle spell is responsible for alerting humans to the existence of the supernatural world. And then one more enemy turns up: a sociopathic gargoyle who is organizing the worst of the gargoyles—former criminals, addicts, and thugs—to take over the city. This villain is searching for an ancient artifact that will allow his murderous spirit to return to his human form.

     At one point, Lexi compares herself and Rory to the Winchester brothers of Supernatural fame, but I’m sticking with my Scoobie-Doo gang analogy simply because Lexi’s team is so mindless and predictable as they ping-pong erratically back and forth across the city without a plan. Sporadically, and with no particular strategy or methodology, they hunt down gargoyles, try to make peace with the witches, attempt to track down the villainous gargoyle and his stony gang, and search for the artifact.

     These action scenes are interspersed with relationship scenes. One minute Lexi is refusing to take a break for some well-needed sleep, insisting that nothing will keep her from finding every last gargoyle in the city, and the next minute she realizes that it’s date night, so she rushes home for a romantic evening with Caleb Kennedy, her self-serving, untrustworthy, alchemist boyfriend. Needless to say, Lexi’s priorities are a bit muddled. In the midst of all this confusion, Lexi and Stanis continue to work on the ongoing awkwardness of their fractured friendship. Lexi reassesses her affair with Caleb and deals with her jealousy of Stanis’ gargoyle friend, Emily, and Stanis reassesses his relationship with Emily and deals with his jealousy of Caleb. (You already know how this part of the story works out—right?)

     Because this is the final novel in the trilogy, we know from the beginning that there will be a happy ending, so that much is predictable. To get to that HEA, though, we must follow a twisty path littered with red herrings and dead bodies. Some of the key plot points are obvious, but others are a surprise, which means that this novel has a bit more suspense than the previous two. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Incarnate on its page—just click on the cover art.

     Although this novel ties up all the loose ends into a neat package, the series as a whole has been disappointing. It began with an inventive mythology—the gargoyle who comes to life and the spellmason who inherits the ability to manipulate stone—but then the author fails to develop the characters beyond the caricature stage, particularly the Scooby team members and the various villains. The overall thematic story line has suspense, drama, and imagination, but there are too many illogical events and plot holes within the individual books. I’d give the series three stars.

     This world is mostly human. In fact as the series opens, the only supernatural creatures that exist in this alternate Manhattan are stone men—gargoyles, or grotesques. In the series opener, the gargoyle who is at the center of the story, Stanis (aka Stan, aka Stanislav), perches on the roof of a privately owned building overlooking Gramercy Park. This gargoyle isn't the usual ugly, misshapen waterspout statue, however. Check out the cover art—he's a handsome young man even if he is made of stone.

     The building that houses Stanis is owned by the Belarus (pronounced Bell air' us) family, whose ancestor, Alexander, was a great stonemason and architect who built a real estate empire in Manhattan decades ago. Actually, Alexander was more than a stonemason. He was a Spellmason, a mage with the ability to work magic on stone to the point of transmuting stone into a living thing. The residents of Gramercy Park building are Alexander's descendants: his great-great-granddaughter, Alexandra (Lexi); her parents; and her brother, Devon. Devon is the heir apparent for the real estate business, and Lexi dabbles in the arts, particularly sculpture. 

     The supporting characters include Lexi's two friends: Aurora (Rory) Torres, a dance student who has been Lexi's BFF since they were children, and Marshall, a geeky gamer who lives in a world of Dungeons and Dragons. Marshall has just become Rory's roommate, although he and Rory are not a romantic couple.

     Strout also writes the SIMON CANDEROUS series, which tells the story of a talented psychometrist who has decided to go straight after years of using his magical talents in illegal ways. Click HERE to read my review of that series (which I like a lot better than this one).

               BOOK 1:  Alchemystic               
     As the story opens, Stanis wakes up to find himself looking out over a city that appears very different from the one that he remembers. He has obviously been asleep for many decades, but something has awakened him. 

     Meanwhile, Devon Belarus is killed in a building collapse, and Lexi gets pulled out of her comfortable artsy life and forced into the family business. As she is walking home from work one night, she is mugged by a tattooed man with a knife who grabs her and hisses, "Where is it?...We've been looking so very long." (p. 32) Lexi tries to escape through an alley, but gets stuck at the top of a fence. Just as she begins to think that she is about to die, someone comes to her rescue and her assailant disappears. At this point, she has no idea what happened: Who was her attacker? What did he want? Who rescued her? Where did they both go? As the plot unwinds, she gets the answers to all of those questions.

     A few days later, when Lexi is once again attacked and saved, she finally gets a good look at her rescuer: a seven-foot tall man who is made of stone. Stanis explains that he is a gargoyle whose sole purpose is to protect her family. Over the next few days, Lexi and Stanis hold several conversations during which she learns that Stanis was created by her great-great-grandfather and that Alexander was a magical Spellmason. When Alexander fled from enemies in Europe and came to America, he put a spell of protection on his family that was meant to last for generations. Unfortunately, the spell is weakening, and that has allowed the family's enemies to find them. The weakening of the spell is the catalyst for Stanis' awakening. 

     Soon, Lexi is immersed in a study of books and papers in her ancestor's magical library as she tries to figure out a way to locate four soul stones that she hopes will give Stanis more power so that she can somehow restore strength to the protection spell. As Lexi and her buddies search for the stones, they get into more and more dangerous trouble and eventually run into the villains of the story, who want two things: Alexander's spell book and the death of all remaining members of the Belarus family.

     The premise of the series is fresh and inventive; we don't find many gargoyle heroes in the UF world. Unfortunately, the story-telling and characterization leave a lot to be desired. The author presents his expositional material in the form of an improbable dialogue between Lexi and Rory. In an awkward conversation, they each explain some of their back-stories in a manner that two old friends would never do. So...the book gets off to a bad start. 

     Then, there's the characterization: Lexi, Rory, and Marshall remind me of the wacky gang in the Scooby-Doo cartoons as they set out on unlikely adventures, wield unfamiliar weaponry (like a medieval pole arm) with ease, and easily defeat experienced attackers who out-weigh them by hundreds of pounds. Even the two casts of characters match up: Lexi is the rich, always-in-danger Daphne; Rory is Velma, with her dark-rimmed eyeglasses (although Rory doesn't have quite the brain power that Velma has); and Marshall is Shaggy, the rumpled slacker. I guess Stanis is supposed to be handsome Fred, although that comparison doesn't play out as well as the others. The only one missing is Scooby. Lexi's team even does the idiotic "let's split up" bit during one danger-filled scene, just like the Scooby gang always does, episode after episode. Strout's cardboard characters do one crazy, irresponsible, unbelievable thing after another. For example, in the scene in which Lexi and Stanis first get acquainted (p. 98), she asks him whether he can fly well, and when he says yes, she jumps off the top of a building, wanting the experience of flying and assuming that he will catch her. I don't know about you, but I'm not impressed by a harebrained heroine who would do a stupid thing like that.

     Here's another improbability: Within days of learning about Spellmasonry, Lexi is able to create her own animated stone creature. She has never done anything magical in the twenty years of her pampered life, but she can instantly animate a brick. Although Lexi may have some genetic Spellmason talent, to have it manifest itself instantly, without training or instruction of any kind, goes beyond the limits of even fantasy expectations. In another impossible-to-believe scene, Rory the dancer successfully thwarts two muscular thugs who trap her and Lexi on a ship's gangplank. Rory has absolutely no magical talent, no martial arts skills, and no weapons, but we're supposed to believe that she can throw one man over the side and beat the other one into unconsciousness. Once again, that's too implausible even for UF. Characters who can do these types of things in UF stories almost always have some kind of magical powers. What frosts the cake in the latter scene is that Lexi loudly and repeatedly berates Rory for her beating of their attackers—men who were coming after them with long, sharp knives in their hands and murder in their hearts. There's a time to be soft-hearted, and then there's a time to toughen up and just say "thank you" to your BFF for handling a threat.

     I could go on and on with listing these unbelievable scenes, and I haven't even mentioned the fact that although Stanis is flying around in heavily populated Manhattan (and even appears before a crowd of people, including security guards, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art after crashing though a window), there is no mention of a mysterious stony, winged creature in newspapers or police reports. Apparently, people see Stanis but then just shrug and go about their business. I know that New Yorkers are blasé and jaded, but please...

     This first book was a disappointment. I expected to be reading a great story because I have enjoyed Strout's SIMON CANDEROUS series, but that didn't happen.

               BOOK 2:  Stonecast               

     As the story opens, Stanis, the gargoyle who protected the Balarus family for centuries, has been missing for six months. At the end of book 1, Stanis sacrificed his freedom in a bargain with his villainous father, Kejetan Ruthenia, who promised not to harm Alexandra (Lexi) Balarus and her family if Stanis would agree to surrender himself to Kejetan's custody and give up some magical secrets. 

     The book is written in the first person voice with chapters alternating between Lexi and Stanis, so be sure that you pay attention to the chapter titles, each of which lets you know which character is speaking. This dual-voice approach means that the plot has two separate story arcs: what is happening to Stanis (mostly horrific torture and pain) and what is going on with Lexi (mostly silly dialogue with her friends, but later a rushed and misguided romantic relationship with a completely untrustworthy, amoral thief).

    Of course, Stanis never had any intention of revealing any information at all, so Dad has had an alchemist torturing Stanisphysically and mentallyall this time, deep in the hold of his decrepit ship. Also contributing to Stanis' torture is Devon, Lexi's mean-spirited and greedy brother, who allowed Kejetan to turn him into a gargoyle based on promises of immortality, power, and wealth. As you can imagine, Kejetan is in a very bad mood after so much time has passed with no results. He wants the secret magical information held by the Belarus family, and he wants it now.

     Meanwhile, Lexi and her Scooby Doo team (i.e., Rory and Marshall) have been working on building up their skills. They know that Kejetan will eventually attack them, and they want to be ready. Lexi has managed to increase her spellmasonry powers to some extent, but not nearly enough to provide any protection from Kejetan and his gargoyle troops.

     The plot centers around Kejetan's attempts to break Stanis' will as the alchemist finally subdues Stanis' true inner voice and forces him to follow Kejetan's orders: to get the mystical spellmason secrets from Lexi at any cost, even if it results in her death. Meanwhile, Lexi is approached by Desmond Locke, her father's sleazy spiritual advisor, who turns out to be involved in a quasi-religious organization called the Libra Concordia. That group collects information on questionable miracles that are generally connected to magic. Locke is quite interested in capturing Lexi's father's "angel" for further study. (That would be Stanis, who rescued her dad from a near drowning when he was a child). When Locke agrees to allow Lexi access to Libra Concordia's library in exchange for information about the angel, he introduces her to Caleb Kennedy, a young and handsome alchemist who agrees to help her, even though he has done some very bad things that should make her quite wary of trusting him.

     As the plot builds to its climactic resolution at sea, Lexi (as in book 1) performs some maneuvers that are highly improbable (like flying around Manhattan using homemade stone wings after just one very short lesson). The characters of Rory and Marshall are so shallow and forced that they are cringe-worthy, while Lexi's insta-romantic relationship with the devious Caleb just serves to emphasize her immaturity and her air-headed lack of insight. 

     Although this book is marginally better plotted than book 1, the characters are still paper-thin, and there is still the extremely improbable fact that the human community seems oddly unaware of the gargoyles in their midst. You'd think that the mayor would call in the National Guard to deal with them as they destroy buildings right and left, but no…it's as if no one even notices the damage. Click HERE to read an excerpt on the Stonecast page at Just click on the book cover (top left) for access to the excerpt.