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Sunday, February 12, 2012


Author:  Marjorie M. Liu

Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor2-3
Publishers and Titles:
      “Hunter Kiss” (prequel story in Wild Thing anthology, Berkley, 2007) (also available as e-book)
      The Iron Hunt (Ace, 2008)
      Darkness Calls (Ace, 2009)
      "Armor of Roses" in Inked anthology (Berkley, 2010)
      "Armor of Roses" & "The Silver Voice" (e-book novella and short story)
      A Wild Light (Ace, 2010)
      The Mortal Bone (Ace, 2012)
      Labyrinth of Stars (Ace, 2014) (FINALprobably)

     This post was revised and updated on 4/6/14 to include a review of Labyrinth of Stars, the fifth and, probably, FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the fourth novel.  

            NOVEL 5:  Labyrinth of Stars            

     As the novel opens, Maxine is in the early stage of her pregnancy, and because of her unique genetic heritage, she knows that her child will be a girl. Even though Maxine and Grant have tried to keep her pregnancy a secret, word has leaked out to their enemies in the magical world. The couple is living on Maxine's mother's farm in Texas, mostly because Grant is hosting four different demon clans and they need lots of space and isolation to keep the demons as far away as possible from the human population, not to mention the fact that they're trying to provide livestock to feed them so that the demons don't wander off and eat any humans. I'm not even going to try to explain how and why the demons are attached to Grant. You really need to read the fourth novel to understand that whole situation. 

     In the first scene, the Aetar make the first of several attacks on Maxine, her unborn child, and her husband by sending a gang of demonic giants after them. Then, they drop poisoned humans on the farm, poisoning not just Grant's demons, but also Grant, Maxine, and Maxine's personal demon boys. All through the book, the Aetar keep trying to kill any or all of Maxine's group.

     The Aetar are the most dangerous enemies that Maxine has ever faced because they are immortal and possess almost unlimited power. As Maxine explains, "The Aetar were made entirely of sentient energy capable of possessing and manipulating human flesh with the ease of a thought. They could be anywhere. And yes, it was easy to kill their mortal shell. But it was impossible to kill them. Unless you were Grant. Or me. Which meant we had targets that could probably be seen from the moon painted on our backs." (p. 41) Maxine's maternal grandfather is an Aetar, but he left them behind long ago to set out on his own. Grandfather plays a key role in this story as Maxine learns even more about his life and his sins.

     Eventually, Maxine is forced into a position in which she has to make a deal with the dark, god-like power that lives deep within her soul in order to save her daughter. As she makes this bargain, she realizes just what it means to be a mother and how far she will go to save the life of her child. 

     As soon as I saw the word "labyrinth" in this book's title, I knew that the plot would be just as woo-woo as it has been for the past few novels, with many scenes involving travel through time and/or space. At this point, Maxine's days of simply hunting down and killing demon-possessed hosts are long over, and she is now dealing with demons in their "natural" (or unnatural) form. She has learned that although some demons are not as evil as others, nobody in the demonic world can be trusted to tell the truth
not even her relatives. 

     In one poignant scene in this novel, Maxine walks through a group of demons who are slowly starving to death and is touched by empathy as she watches a demon child feed an elder demon a piece of meat. This is a huge change from the early books where every demon was an evil demon. Although Maxine knows that as a Hunter, she should exterminate all of these demons, she now realizes that they have families that they love and that they have a culture and a code of honor that they (mostly) adhere to. So, although she was raised to kill demons on sight, she now recognizes that it's just not that simple. Instead of feeling like a Hunter doing the right thing, she'd feel like a murderer.

     Maxine has definitely changed a lot since her solitary Hunter days in The Iron Hunt. Back then, her life was simply because she did just what she was trained to do: kill demons with the assistance of her five demon boys. Each novel has brought more complexity both to her personal and professional life. Her romantic life began to blossom when she met and fell in love with Grant (who has his own magical genetic heritage). Her demon-hunting life got complicated when she met her grandfather and learned more about her female ancestors. Through hard experience, she learned that the facts on which she based her life were either lies or were based on partial truths. Over the course of the five novels, Maxine's life has been turned completely upside-down, but in the process of dealing with all of this chaos, she has transformed herself into a stronger, more powerful woman. Now that she has a husband and a child on the way, she has developed a deep feeling of hope for the future of her family. At one point, Maxine muses, "Growing up, the plan was always this: I'd get pregnant one day, with a stranger. And then I'd die. Young….Maybe there was love, but no happily ever after. Just mothers and daughters, and demons. Wandering together, alone, down a road as old and dark as blood. But I was married. I was in love. Which, when you think about it, is almost as rare as carrying five demons on your skin. And much more precious." (p. 121)

     The best part of the HUNTER KISS stories has always been the scenes involving Maxine's five demon boys. Each one has his own slightly demented personality, and their culinary preferences always add humor to even the grimmest situation. Over the course of the series, Maxine's relationship with the boys has also become more complexjust like the rest of her life. When they were severed from her in a previous novel, she learned the how and why of their attachment to her. As she reflects, "I wasn't entirely human. My ancestors had been tampered with. Treated like animals in an experiment that resulted in a bloodline meant to serve only one purpose: to be a living prison for five of the most dangerous demons in existence….What no one expected…was that the prison made for those five demons would be the path to their redemption. That even they could have a change of heart. The heart is powerful. The heart is a weapon." (p. 129) By this time, the demons are just as much a part of Maxine's family as her husband and child.  

     This is a satisfying final chapter for the series, with an exciting, suspense-filled adventure that ends on a note of hope. My only nit-pick is that there are too many—FAR too many—scenes in which characters are vomiting violently and profusely all over the place. (WARNING: Don't plan on enjoying a sandwich while reading this book!) Also, this is definitely not a stand-alone; it needs to be read in the context of the four preceding novels. In an interview in the March 2014 RT Book Reviews, Liu has this to say about Maxine and the future of the HUNTER KISS series: "I feel as though I've told as much of her story as I can—at least for the moment. Maybe in time I'll come back to her, whether it's a look at her past or future. She's a character who will never really leave me." Based on that comment, I'm guessing that this is probably the final book in the series with its current perspective, but that there may be an update or two at some distant future time—perhaps in the form of a story or novella or, more likely, a HUNTER KISS WORLD novel from the viewpoint of a supporting character, conceivably one of the demon boys, or even Maxine's daughter. Click HERE to read an excerpt (chapter 1) from Labyrinth of Stars. Just scroll down and click on the icon labeled "Read Full Excerpt." Click HERE to read an another excerpt (chapter 5).       

     In this dark world, Maxine Kiss, called "Hunter" by the demons and zombies that she executes, is the latest, and perhaps the last, in a long line of female Hunters. The twist here is that during the daytime, Maxine is covered with tattoos that serve as impenetrable armor, protecting her from any harm. After sunset, the tattoos strip off to form five small demons who fight for her. 

     In an on-line interview Liu describes Maxine's story as "a series of books about a young woman’s emergence from her mother’s long shadow. For my heroine, Maxine Kiss, that’s easier said than done. Those tattoos that protect her have been passed down from mother to daughter for ten thousand years, and it’s a tragic inheritance.  Every mother ultimately dies for her daughterviolently, terribly—and every daughter knows that, and knows she’ll do the same for her daughter, whether she wants to sacrifice herself or not.  That’s the price of their power. But it sucks.  How do you live your own life, become your own individual self, when the only person you knew as family—your mother, your world, your source of identity—is sacrificed so that you can go on living? How do you carve your own path, when you feel compelled to follow the legacy of the woman who died for you? Beyond all the demons and conspiracies, and otherworldly happenings of the HUNTER KISS series, that is the ultimate question...."

     Maxine’s companion is her lover, Grant, a former priest whose golden flute and magical voice have supernatural powers. Demonic characters frequently attack from supernatural worlds, but much of the action is set on the dark and gloomy streets of Seattle. The series includes a number of mythological characters and a mystical labyrinth. The dark plots are complex, with many supernatural and mythical details.

In another on-line interview, Liu states that these are the three things she would like readers to know about the HUNTER KISS series:

>  It’s a story about mothers and daughters, and how the bonds between them create legacies that survive death, apocalypse, and the most radical of personal transformations. 
>  Love saves the soul, and the world. 
>  Demons, even the ones that eat people, aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes, in fact, they’re the closest thing to family a girl can have.
            NOVEL 4:  The Mortal Bone              
      As the story opens, Maxine and Grant are honeymooning on her late mother's Texas ranch. In the very first scene, their peace is shattered when a demon-possessed woman delivers a crystal skull encased in a red bowling bag. Then, a silver rose with a message from beyond the grave drives Maxine's five demon "boys" from her arms in broad daylight. As it turns out, the boys have been totally severed from Maxine—essentially freed to go about their own demonic business. The boys are actually Reaper Kings—powerful demons who at one time were the most feared of all demons. They have been bonded to—or imprisoned in—a woman from Maxine's bloodline ever since. Soon, it is evident that this severing has jolted the demon world into a power shake-up, with the boys trying to come out on top. Both Grant and Maxine must make some choices about their own powers in the face on a possible large-scale demon war. 

     Although this is a well-told, fast-paced story, I must confess that I liked this series better in the early books when the mythology was just a bit simpler. By the time we get to The Mortal Bone, we have Maxine's grandfather coming back in various host bodies, Grant struggling to deal with the power of his voice, Maxine trying to squelch the dark power hidden within her, and various demon lords vying for control on earth. Not to mention the mysterious "Tinkerer," who lives in the labyrinth and is probably Maxine's father. I love the boys: Zee, Raw, Aaz, Dek, and Mal—gobbling up bits of metal, burping on grenades, chewing up teddy bears, and guzzling down can after can of motor oil. They're cute and vicious at the same time, and they always have Maxine's back—until this book, that is. For me, the best part of this book is the struggle the boys have as they are tempted by freedom but are unable to resist their protective feelings for Maxine.

     I recommend that you begin reading the series with the prequel novella and  The Iron Hunt. If you start with a later book, you'll miss many important details about the mythology and the initial set-up for the series story arc.

     Liu also writes another paranormal series: DIRK AND STEELE. Dirk and Steele is an international detective agency whose employees have been shunned by human society because of their paranormal skills (e.g., mind reading, shape shifting, healing). They travel the world solving crimes involving a variety of villains. Each book tells the story of one detective as he solves a crime and finds a soul mate. The stories have action-filled, complex plots, a notch above most soul-mate romances.

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