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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Elliott James: PAX ARCANA SERIES

Author:  Elliott James
Series:  PAX ARCANA 
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor3  
Publisher:  Orbit 
    NOVELS:
          Charming (9/2013) 
          Daring (9/2014) 
          Fearless (8/2015) 
          In Shining Armor (4/2016)
          Legend Has It (Spring 2017)

    E-STORIES::  

         "Charmed, I'm Sure" (8/2013)
          "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls" (9/2013)
          "Pushing Luck" (10/2013) 
          "Surreal Estate" (1/2014)
          "Dog-Gone" (2/2014) 
          "Bulls Rush In" (4/2015)
          "Talking Dirty" (5/2015)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 6/17/16 to include a review of In Shining Armor, the fourth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and reviews of the first three novels and all of the stand-alone stories.

                       NOVEL 4:  In Shining Armor                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     This fairy godmother's got claws...When someone kidnaps the last surviving descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, it's bad news. When the baby is the key to the tenuous alliance between a large werewolf pack and the knights, it's even worse news. They're at each other's throats before they've even begun to look for baby Constance.

     But whoever kidnapped Constance didn't count on one thing: she's also the goddaughter of John Charming, modern-day descendant of a long line of famous dragon slayers, witch finders, and wrong righters. John may not have any experience being a parent, but someone is about to find out that he can be one mean mother...

MY REVIEW:

     Like previous novels, this story begins with a flashback and then is broken into four sections, each one resolving one piece of the conflict:

Prologue: Boston, 1965
     John Charming has a flashback dream in which he relives his first encounter with a skinwalker.

Part 1: "Baby Come Back"

     While John and his girlfriend, Sig Norresdotter, are enjoying a camping vacation in the mountains, they receive word that John's goddaughter, Constance, has been kidnapped. Constance is also the goddaughter of Ben Lafontaine, leader of the Round Tablethe alliance of werewolf packs who have made a treaty with the Knights Templar. She is also the granddaughter of Emil Lamplighter, the Knights' Grandmaster. John and Ben are forced to work closely with the Grandmaster's deadly efficient fixer, Simon Travers, all the way through their adventures in this book. The action in this section covers all of the plot described above in the publisher's blurb.

Part 2: "In One Fear and Out the Other"

     The rescue team turns their efforts toward figuring out why Constance was abducted and tries to capture the kidnapper, who is on the run in another realm. Simon is trying to figure out how many skinwalkers have infiltrated the Knights. Meanwhile, the Crusaders (the anti-werewolf wing of the Knights) is creating havoc for the Grandmaster. It is in this section that John exhibits the first signs of being an unreliable narrator, meaning that you, the reader, must carefully watch his every move from this point on. (Even knowing this, I guarantee that you'll be astonished by a very big twist at the end of Part 4.) 

     At this point, the primary enemies are the skinwalkers and a female dalaketnon. They are involved in the production and distribution of a drug called Glimpse that allows users to see the future.


     By this time, John and Simon are certain that there is a traitor among the Knights, and this section contains a single moment that foreshadows the identity of that villain. (Unfortunately, there's no way that you'll realize this while you're reading it).


     This section has the best of the chapter headings. The best is Chapter 19: "The Game Is Afoot. Also Ahead. And Afemur. And I think that's Aspleen…" Needless to say, the situation gets gory. Runner up is the title of Chapter 20: "So, We Weren't Dead. We Were Just in Canada" (just a bit of ethnographic humor).    


Part 3: "Your Mission, Should You Live to Regret It"

     The action moves to Boston, where the team believes that a supernatural entity has set up the entire Glimpse operation. John and Sig break away from Simon and the Knights and go underground (literally and figuratively) to make contact with their old friends in the supernatural world who don't yet know that John is working with the Knights. In fact, they know John and Sig by the names Liam and Britte. Those friends include Parth (a shape-shifting, computer-hacking naga); Babette, a rusalka; and Nick, a shape-shifting nix. All of their old friends despise the Knights, so John and Sig have to be careful to keep their true identities concealedwhich proves to be impossible to do.

     At this point, a group of Red Caps and their female leadera different type of supernaturalenter the plot. As John explains, "Redcaps were the uncouth thugs of the unseen world They were one of several species that acted as leg-breakers and bully boys for the Fae…squat and muscular sociopaths with sharp talons and needle teeth." They get their name from the fact that they are under an enchantment that forces them to wear hats dipped in the blood of their victims. Also livening up the action are herds of dragger (zombies). The draugar in this book differ from the traditional dragger of Norse mythology in that these are all rotting, reanimated corpses that have died within a large body of water. One of the high points is when Sig summons a ghost train to distract and then destroy the draugar.


     By this point in the book, John and Sig are facing multiple enemies, most of whose true identities are still unknown. Sig complains, "Why can't it ever be like Mission Impossible with us?…It would be nice to know exactly who our enemy is and what our objective is, and then plan everything out…Ever since I started hanging around you, it's more like Oh look, something messed-up is going on, Let's poke it and see what happens. Wow, it's even bigger and more messed-up than it looked like. Let's poke it again. Oh my God, where did those giant fire-breathing woodchucks come from?


     The Grandmaster summarizes the dilemma in this way: Our enemy is "trying to synthesize and develop a drug the lets people see the future. They're looking for ways to transport large numbers of goods or agents across physical distances instantly. That's time and space, John. They're looking for ways to control time and space, and those are just the two specific endeavors we know about."  Eventually, the Grandmaster compares their situation to "glimpsing parts of a snake through a crack in the rocks. We still don't know how big the snake is or how poisonous or even what direction it's going in." And don't forget about the recalcitrant Crusaders lurking in the background preparing to wage war against the Round Table. 


     By the end of this section, the group has identified what type of supernatural is the brains behind the Glimpse production, but they don't have a physical description. Towards the end of this section, two paladinsMatthew (Matt) and Lukeare added to John's team. As John explains, they are part of "a small group of Knights Templar who are half priests and half Navy SEALs. They can sanctify ground, perform exorcisms, and then pull a machete or a shotgun from behind their back and start smiting." While John is making introductions to Matt and Luke, he (and we) finally learn what Sig's full name is. If you just can't stand the suspense, highlight the bracketed space at the end of this sentence to read her true name: [Sigourney]. It's your choice.


Part 4: "Scry Hard"

     Having figured out the true identity of the gang leader at the very end of section three, John and Sig must face several supernatural traps, spells, and enchantments before the requisite showdown scene takes place, and it's an exciting one, filled with lots of suspense and action along with a major twist and a hairpin turn that you'll never see coming. Here's where John's unapologetically unreliable narrative voice kicks in big time. Although the zigzags in the final scenes are unpredictable and over the top, they are quite satisfyingfor the most part. Although I can't help but wonder how and why that picnic basket found its way into the story. In a way, the basket's contents are necessary, but what on earth was its original purpose for the character who shows up with it? I'm guessing that it's a case of authorial manipulation, but on a very small (and, therefore, acceptable) scale. The unmasking of the traitor opens up some more previously unknown facts about the history of the Templars. 

     Near the end of this section, a captive mentions the "School of Night," which appears to have a connection with an alliance of half-Fae supernaturals who are fed up with their lives. In the final chapter (entitled "And They Lived Happily for an Indeterminate Period of Time Afterward.") John ties up all of the loose ends except the School of Night, which must wait until a future book for further exploration. John does remember that the phrase comes from William Shakespeare's Love's labor's Lost: "Black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons, and the School of Night." That doesn't sound dangerous at all, does it?


     As John and Sig team up on their various Glimpse-related adventures, they also work on their romance. At one point, when under extreme physical duress from the enemy, John tells Sig that he loves hera major milestone in their relationship. By the end, they realize that they make an excellent team and plan to discuss John's love declaration while on a vacation to Iceland. Let's hope that they get that vacation because they really earn it in this book.


     This is yet another great addition to a wonderful urban fantasy series. I have loved every novel and story in PAX ARCANA, and that's true of this novel as well. The plot unwinds at a compelling pace with new characters, old characters, strange supernaturals, and wily Knights all either conspiring against John, supporting him, orsometimesboth. If you are a fan of the series, this is a must read. If you haven't read the earlier books, I'd advise you to start at the beginning with Charming and work your way through. It's a great journey.


     Click HERE to read an excerpt from In Shining Armor on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art. 

                       WORLD-BUILDING                       
      At the center of this mythology is the titular Pax Arcana, a magical separation between the arcane and mundane worlds that allows supernatural beings to exist alongside humans, but blocks humans from recognizing anything remotely magical or otherworldly. Here's an example of how the Pax Arcana works: In one scene (in Charming), the hero sprays a vampire with holy water and the vamp begins screeching. "The sound was horrifically loud and blatantly inhuman….Every human who heard that howl fell under the effect of the Pax Arcana. None of them would peer out windows overlooking the back alleys now. Squad cars would decide to stay on the main streets without knowing why. People whose needs or inclinations might have taken them through the alleys would impulsively decide to take alternate routes." (Charming, p. 34)

     One group that maintains law and order among the supernaturals is called the Knights Templar, and it is made up of the descendants of the original group that existed back in the Middle Ages. Although they have long since divided into factions, most of them adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to punishing supernaturals who put the Pax Arcana in jeopardy. Each Knight is bound by a geas"a magical oath that drives knights to fulfill a specific duty, and the Knights Templar have sworn to uphold the Pax Arcana. Basically that means that we do not harm supernatural beings unless they are on the verge of revealing themselves to mankind, but when a supernatural being is judged terminally indiscreet, we eliminate them as quietly as possible." (Charming, p. 32) One effect of the geas on the Knights is that the geas overrides the effects of all mental magic, so Knights can see through glamours and are not affected by psychic influence. "They cannot be possessed, charmed, warded, cursed, predicted, or beguiled." ("Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls") 


     The series hero is John Charming, a descendant of a long family line of Charmingsthe princes that gained fame over centuries of fairy tales. "The reason there are so many stories about 'Prince' Charming is that there was never one manthe Charmings were an entire family line standing between humanity and all other for generation after generation, and in the old days it was common to give any monster killer in a story royal status." (Charming, p. 29) Unfortunately, when John's mother was late in her pregnancy, she was bitten and changed into a werewolf, and he was born with some mild werewolf traits, principally slightly enhanced strength and speed. John's family was part of the Knight Templars, and he was always meant to join that group as part of his heritage. At first, the Templars grudgingly and suspiciously accepted him into their ranks, but when he was in his late twenties, an incident triggered more of his werewolf traits. After that happened, the Templars labeled him an abomination and have been trying to capture and kill him ever since. 


     At this point in time, John is 76 years old (although he looks to be in his twenties). His life style consists of moving from place to place, using a variety of aliases, and continuing to be one of the good guys, while always looking over his shoulder for the Templars. Here he explains: "I carried my name proudly for as long as I was able. And I am still that man. No matter what else is in my DNA, no matter what my old order says, no matter what titles have been stripped from me or how long I am forced to run and hide…I am still that man….I think." (Charming, p. 29) Even though he is no longer a Knight, John is still bound by his geas, so he keeps himself ready to battle any monster that comes along, always making sure that his guitar case is close at handa case that contains a katana, holy water, blessed salt, ceremonial candles, a Glock, a blowgun, and tranquilizer dartsall tucked neatly under his guitar. He also sheaths a number of blades to his body because, "If the prime rule of real estate is location, location, location, the prime rule of monster hunting is decapitation, decapitation, decapitation. 
("Bulls Rush In")


     In a way, John reminds me of Lee Child's Jack Reacherthe difference being that John has access to more diverse weaponry. Both men are intelligent, battle-scarred, transient loners with few possessions, and they spend their lives fighting the good fight against the monsters in our world. John also has a predilection for MacGyverisms, assembling assortments of common objects to build weapons and/or defenses. In one story, for example, he constructs (and provides instructions for making) a portable salt ring using materials he finds stored behind the bar in a scummy dive in wintry Alaska: "a stick of gum, a Post-it note, some regular-sized bendy straws, a container of Morton's table salt, and some duct tape." ("Dog-Gone It")


     In the "Extras" section of Charming, the author explains the structure of the PAX ARCANA world and why he changed his mind about having a fully human protagonist: "The world in my novel is in a state of schism: it's actually two worlds that have been unnaturally divided and are coexisting side by side in an uneasy state of truce….I reluctantly decided that I needed a character who was going to have a foot in both worlds while ultimately belonging to neither….I chose to make John a werewolf because werewolves are one of the weakest monsters individually, and also one of the most familiar….If I couldn't have an ordinary human protagonist for my novel, I at least wanted to make his abilities familiar so that I could use him as a starting point to explore this world….I made my first antagonist a vampire for similar reasons." (Charming, p. 374) 


     Click HERE for links to posts about the series written by Elliott James on various blogs. Click HERE to read a blog James wrote for RT Book Reviews: "Elliott James on Prince Charming and Happily Ever After." Click HERE to read "When Push Comes to Love," a free John Charming short story on RabidReads.ca.

     If you have enjoyed Kevin Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, Kate Griffin's MATTHEW SWIFT series, Benedict Jacka's ALEX VERUS series, and Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES series, I think you'll love the world of PAX ARCANA. Click on the three pink-link series titles above to read my reviews of those series, each of which includes a reading-order list of titles. Click HERE to go to Jim Butcher's web site for more on Harry Dresden.

                       NOVEL 1:  Charming                       
     In the opening scene of this story, John Charming (using a fake name) is tending bar in small-town Clayburg, North Carolina, when a tall, beautiful, blond, non-human woman walks in. Moments later, while John is admiring the woman and wondering exactly what she is, a blood-lusting vampire also enters the bar. In response to his geas, John immediately takes action by throwing the vamp out, to the outrage of the blond, who wanted to take him down herself. Later that night, the vamp comes back with his hive mates to take revenge on John, but John is ready for them. Being a Knight and a werewolf, John has the skills and the weaponry to deliver true death to most of the vamps, but the blond saves his life when she kills the last one with her gigantic spear. She introduces herself as Sig Norresdotter, a Valkyrie who works with a rag-tag team to keep the local vampires under control.

     In this world, vampires have some of the traditional traits: surviving on human blood; being super-sensitive to the sun; and having enhanced speed and strength. What's different is that they do not magically become ultra-handsome or beautiful when they become vampires. They do look that way to mortals, but it's just a glamour. Underneath, they are "walking corpses with pale white skin the color and texture of worm flesh, lank greasy hair, bad teeth, and breath that smells like a butcher shop. Popular young adult novels notwithstanding, vampires only sparkle when they burn." (Charming, p. 11) Also different is the fact that, for the most part, vamps can drink only the blood that matches their original blood type, and they can identify blood types by smell. And one more vamp talent is their ability to burrow underground. 


     John and Sig are attracted to one another, but Sig is already in a long-term relationship with surly Stanislav Dvornik, a member of a Templar-like organization called the Kresnik. For Stanislav and John, it's hate at first sight because Stanislav views John as an "it"an abomination and an animal, but definitely not a person. Sig talks John into joining them as they begin to realize that a young and dangerous vampire is building her own army. When John discovers that Sig and Stanislav know his real name and his unhappy history with the Knights, he realizes that he needs to go on the run, but he feels compelledboth by his geas and by his attraction to Sigto stay and help them out.

     The plot follows the group as they slowly follow the clues, figure out what they are up against, and strategize on how to take down the vamps. But nothing goes as planned, and when jealousy and betrayal enter the picture, the situation gets even more dangerous. 

     This is a terrific novel, with excellent plotting and pacing, well-developed characters, and nicely defined interpersonal relationships. The emotional twists and turns within the triangle of John, Sig, and Stanislav are fascinating to watch, and the primary supporting characters are delightful (three humans and one supernatural): Molly, a former Episcopal priest; Chauncy ("Choo"), a marijuana-smoking concert pianist cum exterminator; Ted Cahill, a long-time local police detective who knows all about the supernatural world; and Parth a rich, tech-savvy, shape-shifting naga
  
     The best thing about the story is that the author tells it in John's wry first-person voice as if John were sharing his story directly with the reader. As John explains to Sig at the very end of the book, "One thing I'm going to do is find a place to hole up and write all of this down while it's still fresh." (p. 365) He goes on to say: "I'm not writing this for Sig, or the Knights, or even myself. I'm writing this for you. That's why I've larded this book with background lore and survival tips….I don't know if the Pax will finally break tomorrow, or in a decade, or in a century, and I will do everything I can to preserve it as long as possible, but the truth is that magical nap time is almost over….Anyway, this is the story I wrote." (p. 366) Although—true to his word—John's story contains a lot of expositional information (mostly background on the cultures and traditions of various supernatural species), John (aka the author) is such a good story teller that it all flows naturally in his sardonic, self-deprecating, wise-cracking voice—a real joy to read. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this book's Amazon.com page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. Click HERE to read some deleted interludes from Charming.


                      NOVEL 2:  Daring                       

      The novel is divided into four parts, beginning with a Prelude ("Ten Things That People Who Didn't Read the First Book Really Ought to Know"). This is a clever way of summarizing the high points of the series mythology and the key events of Charming.

Part 1: "It's My Party and I'll Die if I Want to." 

     At the end of Charming, John supposedly left Clayburg, ditching Sig Norresdotter and her band of monster hunters because he wanted to protect them from the Knights Templar who are hunting him down. John describes Sig as "the woman I'm carefully avoiding using the word 'love' around..." (p. 10). But John doesn't really leave; he skulks around Clayburg on the lookout for the Templars so that he can rescue Sig if necessary. (As he puts it: "Not sulking. Not stalking. Skulking.") When the Templars do come, they give John an offer he cannot refuse. If he turns himself over to them, they will leave Sig and her group alone. If he refuses, John's friends will die. 

     The Knights drag John off to one of their isolated dungeons, where he proves to them that he was not involved in a werewolf uprising that has resulted in the murders of several Knights in the Midwest. Of course, the Knights were certain that John was the murderer because they believe that he is an evil abomination. When it turns out that he is innocent, they are shocked. During his time with the Templars, John has a series of flashbacks to the earlier years of his life, giving us a peek into the trauma of his past. 

     After John is thoroughly questioned and found innocent of all crimes, Emil, the Grandmaster, commands John to infiltrate the Wisconsin werewolf Clan and assassinate its leader. When John refuses, Emil promises that John will be tortured until he agrees. At that point, John makes his escape, only to run into a group of werewolves who are breaking in to rescue him. 


Part 2: "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Wolfman":

     (Note: You may not see the point in this section at first, but all becomes clear at the end.) As soon as the rescue is complete, the wolves hand our hero a literal and figurative "Dear John" letter from Sig in which she essentially breaks up with him, telling him that he needs to join up with the wolves and find his inner beast. When John refuses to join the Clan, the werewolves threaten to harm Sig. Poor John. He just can't catch a break, not even from the supposed good guys. 

     Over the next 16 chapters, John is introduced to the Clan (they hate the word "pack"), with its collection of quirky members, all characterized in John's snarky voice. First he goes through a hilarious New Age type of initiation, during which he begins to feel a connection with the other wolves. This is a new, very emotional experience for John, who has been a lone wolf ever since he left the Knights. Eventually, John meets Bernard, the Clan alpha he was supposed to assassinate, and earns some trust by leading a hunt for a bakaak—an undead Native American hunter—who is killing Clan werewolves because they have invaded his hunting lands to plant marijuana. The bakaak hunt gives John a chance to enlighten us with more of his knowledge of obscure magical creatures and mythological trivia.


     All through Part 2, John's connections with the Clan members get stronger and stronger: "I was having a hard time putting my emotions aside….These were my family, something was saying…It felt like there were a lot of feelings combined into one huge pressure that was swelling against my conscious mind like water against a dam This was my territory! This was my home!" (p. 165) After a horrifically traumatic event, John finally gives in and agrees to join the Clan even though he disagrees with Bernard's future plans for the wolves. John warns that if Bernard continues on this path, the Clan will soon turn to the dark side, and, as John reminds Bernard, "I'm being driven by a geas…If you do something that I think is seriously threatening the Pax Arcana, I'll start getting compulsions to stop you." (p. 185) (Note: See the World-Building section for an explanation of the geas.) 


Part 3: Mission Impolitic: 

   Bernard has decided that the Clan will drive all of the Knights out of Wisconsin and make it an all-werewolf territory. He wants the werewolves to prepare themselves for the eventual breakdown of the Pax Arcana by banding together in direct defiance of the Knights' attempts to keep the Clans small and separate. In other words, it's a war between two proverbs: "In unity there is strength" (the wolves) vs. "Divide and conquer" (the Knights).

     In this section, John moves up in the Clan's chain of command when Bernard sends him to Albalmar, Wisconsin, to track down a magic-using serial killer and to whip the local Clan into shape. These chapters play out like a police procedural as John assembles clues and suspects and tracks down the killer. He also discovers that some of the wolves have already moved to the dark side. 


Part 4: "Old School": 

     As John and his Clan members are cleaning up the remains of some black magic, Sig unexpectedly appears on the scene. John's reunion with Sig is quite emotional, because both have been pining away for each other all during their separation. The remaining chapters deal with a major betrayal—can't tell you more because it would be a spoiler and I've probably revealed too much information as it isforgive me. One of the highlights of this section is Chapter 47, which is a two-page parody of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." John's version is called "The Road Less Graveled." It begins "Two roads diverged in a frosted wood…" and ends "But I had scouted a path downwind, And that made all the difference." After that familiarly phrased final line, John adds his own brief and violent coda.

     This is one of the best urban fantasy series on the market today with its fresh and inventive take on magic, its complex and fascinating hero, and its witty mix of pop culture, unexpectedly appropriate literary references, sly humor, non-sappy pathos, and an unlikely romance. Especially fascinating are the flashback scenes from John's early history with the Knights. Even more interesting are the scenes in which he bonds with his werewolf brothers and sisters in ways he never thought possible. In these scenes, we see a new side of John, a more thoughtful and emotional side (but still brimming over with sardonic banter). And, of course, let's not forget John's reconciliation with Sig. Woven throughout are several themes: that we need to recognize and accept who we are, that brotherhood and fratricide are points on the same continuum, and that good and evil are not absolutes. If you are looking for a well-written urban fantasy adventure with a charismatic hero, a riveting plot, and plenty of sarcastic wit and deadpan humor, I promise that you will enjoy this book—and this series. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this book's Amazon.com page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.


     FAIR WARNING: This review of Fearless      
      contains a minor spoiler for the previous novels.      
                       NOVEL 3:  Fearless                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     When your last name is Charming, rescuing virgins comes with the territory—even when the virgin in question is a nineteen-year-old college boy.

    Someone, somewhere, has declared war on Kevin Kichida, and that someone has a long list of magical predators on their rolodex. The good news is that Kevin lives in a town where Ted Cahill is the new sheriff and old ally of John Charming. 


     The attacks on Kevin seem to be a pattern, and the more John and his new team follow that thread, the deeper they find themselves in a maze of supernatural threats, family secrets, and age-old betrayals. The more John learns, the more convinced he becomes that Kevin Kichida isn't just a victim, he's a sacrifice waiting to happen. And that thread John's following? It's really a fuse. 

MY REVIEW:

      The novel is divided into three parts: two long and one short. The first part begins with a quirky Prologue that reviews the key events of the previous novels: "A Brief Recap of What Has Gone Before, Screenplay Style." 

Part 1: "A Small Price to Pay": In this section, we catch up with the lives of the primary characters. John and Sig are now a couple, but their sexual relationship has not yet reached "home run" status. John, who has been a lone wolf most of his long life, is now a part of Sig's team, and he's having trouble adjusting to the whole compromise thing. Molly, Choo, and Parth are the remaining team members. Parth is the team's tech wizard because he is "a naga, one of the snakelike immortal beings who spend eternity chasing forbidden knowledge, and as such, he has evolved into a hacker of some skill."


     As the story opens, Ted Cahill, formerly of Clayburg, has summoned John and Sig to Tatum, New York, where he is now the sheriff. The circumstances that caused Ted's sudden move out of Clayburg are too entertaining for me to spoil. Let's just say that he and Sig had some mind-to-mind communication issues. You'll recall (spoiler alert) that Ted lost some of his humanity in the previous book, and he is not yet comfortable with his new powers. Nevertheless, Ted has a missing person casepossibly a murder— to solve, and he is certain that there is a supernatural connection. He is counting on John and Sig to help him solve the case, but the prickly relationship among the three of them is causing some problems. 


     Almost immediately, this case turns out to a case of mistaken identity that is complicated by the fact that monsters have arrived in Tatum to make sure that on the next try, they target the right victim: a college student named Kevin Kichida. John and the team have to discover who wants Kevin dead, and why. What they figure out almost immediately is that the would-be killer is an extremely powerful homicidal spellcaster and summoner. At one point, Cahill has a TSTL moment and accidentally misuses his new supernatural powers, sending Kevin into a coma. To save Kevin's life, the team seeks assistance from Sarah White (the witch with whom John exchanged magical favors in "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls"). 


     As part of Sarah's efforts to help Kevin, she takes him into Dreamtime, accompanied by John. Let me interrupt my review to say that I always dread scenes that employ the dream sequence trope because the result is always a surreal "kitchen-sinky" scene that smacks of authorial self-indulgence and weed-fueled fantasy. And that is exactly what happens in the chapter entitled "Dream Me Up, I'm Waking." Here's how John describes Dreamtime: "Imagine Aboriginal creation myth wearing tight shorts and delivering a pizza to a place where Carl Jung's theory of a collective unconscious is making out with the Hindu belief about reality being a kind of communal illusion…And then the porn music starts and they have a threesome while Plato's hypothesis about layers of reality pounds on the walls and yells, 'Hey! Keep it down over there! I'm trying to read Neil Gaiman's The Sandman!'" Please…I'm begging you…no more dream sequences.


Supernatural Creature Summary for Part 1: 

I keep thinking that I'll discover at least one supernatural critter that comes solely from the authors' imagination, but…not yet. Each creature in this book has roots in mythology or folklore. 
      The Friendlies: one ghost
      The Unfriendlies: one Each Uisge, one bhut, one maere, and one chiang-shih 

Other goodies in Part 1: More details on Sig's personal historythe miserable childhood years.


Best "you're-a-fool-but-I-love-you" put-down in Part 1: Sig slams on John: "You have the survival instincts of a lemming…The only reason you're not dead is that you heal fast and get so much practice at almost getting killed."


Best Chapter title in Part 1: a tie between "It Takes a Village Idiot" and "Caught Between a Cop and a Hard Case"in both titles, John is referencing Cahill. (The runner-up is "Sects and the City.")


Part 2: Bite Club:

     At the end of Part 1, the team learns that the primary villain is an elderly onmyouji, a Japanese specialist in magic and divination who has a direct connection with Kevin. The onmyouji is currently in New York City running a supernatural fight club called the Crucible. Naturally, John and Sig sign up for the fighting so that they can get close enough to the villain to figure out his magic and take him down. Chaos ensues, of course. (John's fight-club name is Down Boy, which provides ample opportunity for humorous, lewd, and degrading comments from various characters about that name as it applies to a male and to a werewolf.) 

     In this section of the story, the team breaks apart to take on separate tasks. Even John and Sig stay away from one another so that the villain doesn't realize that they are partners. They communicate with one another by taking the roles of avatars in one of Parth's online games and meeting up in a secret online room. John's character is named Yohan Frogpants. Molly (a former Episcopalian priest) is Jona Varc (say it out loud). Their online dialogue is a hilarious mishmash of misspellings, typos, and texting abbreviations that not everyone understands. Ted is particularly clumsy: "I taekj it youf ahve a account in this splace?" (Note: My autocorrect function fought me every step of the way when I was typing that quotation!) As the team tries to resolve Kevin Kichida's life-threatening problem, Kevin himself is forced to stay out of the action for his own safety.


Supernatural Creature Summary for Part 2: 

      The Friendlies: many werewolves, one wereleopard, and one half-elf
      The Unfriendlies: one kitsuneone oni, one aswang, many werehyeneas, one yuki-onna, one harionago, many vampires, many gashadokuro, one spriggan, one bakechochin, one ittan-momen, one mapinguari, plus many other assorted monsters in lesser rolestoo many to list here (Note: Some of the unfriendlies become friendlies near the end of the story.)
      Neutral: one chen 

Other goodies in Part 2: In the scene in which John first meets the villain face to face, the onmyouji uses calligraphy written on spelled pieces of rice paper to summarize John's recent activities and to remind John (and the reader) that the rumored alliance between the Knights and the werewolves is troubling many in the supernatural world. (I'm sure that James will return to that point in the next book.) The two men also have an interesting conversation in which they analyze the Fae geas that makes the Pax Arcana possiblehow it was implanted in human society and why it still works (so far, anyway). 


     Late in the story, Sarah tells John how his family genetics have given him some special powers. We also learn that big, bad John drinks honey vanilla chamomile tea to help him sleep. Awwww...


Best Put-down in Part 2: Kevin (young, hipster college kid) responds to much-older, non-texting John's online scold about his bad grammar: "free your mind grampa theres no grammar here"


Best Rant: In exchange for helping John complete a (fictional) task, the onmyouji requires that John compete in three fights. John's fuming response: "Three…Why is it always three? Three days. Three bears. Three pigs. Three brothers. Three tasks. Three sisters. Three goats. Three fairy godmothers. Three blind mice. Three guesses. Three wishes."


Best New Supernatural Slang Word: John decides that hipster vampires should be called "fangsters."


Best Chapter title in Part 2: The best one (chapter 27) is too profane to include here. The runner-up is "Say AGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHH!."


Part 3: The Last Day:
     This final 11 chapters (all quite short) lead up to the plot resolution: the requisite battle to the death in which some good guys/gals and some bad guys/gals bite the dust, or swallow the water, or burn up in fire, or get their heads smashed in by bullets or other flying objects. It's quite a scene, but, in the end, it's a bittersweet victory.

     One of the best things about this book is the complexity of its villain. This is not a power-mad psychopath (wait...he is a psychopath), but he is also a clever, layered character with a horribly skewed code of honor and a wish for immorality that drives him to do terrible things. The other "best thing" about the book isas alwaysJohn's sardonic, self-aware voice. Now that he is in a forced-socialization situation, his attempts at compromise and negotiation are fascinating to watch. John even gives us a chapter entitled "The Plus Side of Working with Other People," which ends with the sentence: "It was good, having friends." (Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy, having friends.) 


     I love this series. Even though this book is 400+ pages long, I read it in just one day because I couldn't put it down. I have the latest e-story ("Bulls Rush In") on my Kindle, and I'll be adding that review to this ongoing post ASAP. 


     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Fearless on the book's Amazon.com page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 



                         THE SHORT STORIES                         
A note about the short stories: All of these stories take place in the PAX ARCANA world, but none of the plots rely on any information from the novels. Each is told as if John were sitting down with you, the reader, over a cup of coffee, spinning some entertaining tales about some of his adventures. Remember that a good storyteller is sometimes unreliableholding back critical details in order to maintain suspense and build to a perfect ending. Reading the short stories will give you a good sense of John's (and the author's) voice and his incredible story-telling techniques.

Here is a list of the story titles and their lengths (according to Amazon.com):

   >  "Charmed, I'm Sure": word count6,900 (36 pages)
   >  "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls": word count—6,800 (33 pages)
   >  "Pushing Luck": word count—12,300 (43 pages)
   >  "Surreal Estate": word count—4,100 (25 pages) 
   >  "Dog-Gone": word count—11,500 (40 pages)
   >  "Bulls Rush In": word count8,500 (41 pages)
   >  "Bulls Rush In": word count13,000 (48 pages)   

  E-STORIES 1 and 2: "Charmed, I'm Sure" & "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls"   
     The first two short stories are connected; they could be described as a two-part novella. In the first, John Charmingcurrently calling himself Tom Morrisis driving through the backwoods of Tennessee when he finds a naked man at the side of the road, a man who thinks that the date is pre-millennium 1999. John immediately senses magic on the man as he helps him to safety. Then, feeling the pull of his Knights Templar geas, John heads back to find out what's going on. 

    The story follows John as he discovers a vicious, female Fae creature in the woods—one that kidnaps and uses up human men. She has captured three young U.S. Marines who were camping nearby—killing one, threatening another, and imprisoning the third in a faery ring. The story follows John as he tries to take down the monster and rescue the men. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Charmed, I'm Sure." 


     In the second story, John and Isaac Robertsthe man John rescued from the faery ringmake a stop in a small southern town where John hopes that Sarah White, an old acquaintance, can help Isaac regain his mortal form. At this point, Isaac is between realms and invisible to the human eye. Sarah agrees to help Isaac, but only if John will assist her in finding her assistant, Courtney, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious, musical water spirit. Sarah is one of the cunning folkpeople who are "descended from shamans, wise women, witch doctors, druids, houngan, and assorted show-offs who used herb lore, alchemy, and trickery to make people believe in magic." As John says, "I've yet to meet one of the cunning folk who didn't have a well-stocked supply of things that burn, dissolve, paralyze, harden, dye, lubricate, intoxicate, and infect." The story follows John as he figures out who took Courtney and why and then goes to her rescue. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls."

     In both of these stories, John deals with several types of supernatural creatures: a wila (aka wili, aka vila, aka veela); some bugganes; and a fossegrim. Although both stories take place in the PAX ARCANA world, they include no expositional material and just a few bare-bones facts about John Charming and his Knights Templar connection. 


                 E-STORY 3: "Pushing Luck"                 

     Apparently John Charming is an accomplished high-stakes poker player as well as being a talented monster slayer. In this story, he is at a party in an Atlanta mansion where he plans to raise some much-needed cash as a player in an underground poker tournament being held by Russell Sidney, a wealthy acquaintance. Russell's situation has changed tremendously since John last saw him. John is sad to learn that his friend is dying of cancer and horrified to discover that the party hors d'oeuvres are made of human flesh and that Russell is being controlled by a heavily glamoured rakshasa

    The story follows John as he finds himself in the rakshasa's cross hairs and must work out a plan to rescue himself and a friend and prevent Russell from being turned into a rakshasa. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Pushing Luck."


                 E-STORY 4: "Surreal Estate"                 
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     The line between reality and dream is never entirely clear under the best of circumstances…and when John Charming finds himself being hunted through a nightmare house, it is far from the best of circumstances.

MY REVIEW:
     Surreal is the key word to keep in mind when you approach this story. It begins as a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness fantasy and ends in gritty reality as John tracks down and destroys yet another monster. This is my least favorite story so fara bit too weird for me.

                 E-STORY 5: "Dog-Gone"                 
     "Dog-Gone" is currently (at least as of 6/18/16) available free in its entirety on the Orbit web site. Click HERE to read it.

     John is back in Alaska, where he once lived for ten years before the Knights Templar hunters found and nearly captured him. He has returned in response to a call for help from a woman who has been dead for years. Lily Alguvuk Franklin came from a family of wendigo hunters who can sense magic and read auras. Lily's son, Frank, is currently a small-town policeman who suspects a local thug of murdering his own sister in order to inherit her late husband's estate. 

     The story follows John as he introduces himself to Frank by saving him from a beating at the hands of some hired bullies and goes on to solve the case, which involves necromancy and death dogs. In the course of the story, John explains that most people don't know the real story behind death dogs, but he is happy to share it with you, the reader. 

     This is another well-told story that nicely displays John's to-the-point approach to monster hunting while providing him yet another opportunity to add to the reader's knowledge of the magical world. The more I read this series, the more I love John Charming's dry, irreverent, self-deprecating voice. It's as charming as his name, and it's one of the best features of these stories.


              E-STORY 6: "Bulls Rush In"                 

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     John's past is complicated enough, so he tries to keep life simple: Find monster. Kill Monster. But when he wanders into Vista Verde, a small town with a big secret, he soon discovers that the simple answer is a load of bull.

MY REVIEW: 
      As John tells this story, he switches back and forth between the presentan interrogation by the local deputy sheriff of Vista Verde, West Virginiaand recent past events in which John interacted with a large and violent town resident named Sam Blanco. 

     Deputy Jim Reedy caught John inside Sam's house, and now he wants the answers to two questions: Why did John break in? Where is Sam? As John summarizes his encounters with Sam over the past few days, he reveals his true name to the deputy and explains that he is a monster hunter. Wait…what!! I couldn't imagine why John was outing himself until I got to the huge twist at the end, which completely changes the reader's understanding of the interview. Adding another layer to the story is the ambiguity of the outcome of John and Sam's final confrontationIf it weren't for the problem that I discuss in the next paragraph, I would heartily recommend this story because Elliott packs so much plot into just a few pages.


Getting down to basics: Although this is a great story, I hesitate to recommend it because of its price: $1.99 for 41 pages. In a Kindle-to-Kindle price-per-page comparison, Elliott's most recent PAX ARCANA novel (Fearsome) costs about 2¼ cents per page, while this story costs about 5 cents per pagenearly double that of the novel.


     Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Bulls Rush In" on the story's Amazon.com page. Just click on the cover art.


     FAIR WARNING: This review of "Talking Dirty"      
      contains a minor spoiler for "Fools Rush In."      
              E-STORY 7: "Talking Dirty"                 
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     While trying to deal with a monster he can't bring himself to kill, John Charming soon runs into another problem: Magic and technology don't mix...so how is a phone sex operation enchanting men through their cell phones? 

MY REVIEW:
     This is a continuation of the story that began in "Fools Rush In." John and Sam are still in Vista Verde, West Virginia, where John faces three major problems: how to teach Sam to keep his fire-snorting nature under control, how to dispose of a dead body, and how to solve a mystery involving the husband of Cassidy, a waitress in the local diner. Cassidy's husband beat her up, stole all their money, and disappeared after engaging in a series of weird phone sex conversations with a woman who sang her side of the conversation. John is certain that magic is involved, so he begins to investigate, with promising results.

     Soon, John figures out a way to solve two of his problems in an adventure that takes him and his bullish companion to Porter, Alabama, to locate the sex operator and destroy her and her "sisters." As you would expect, the woman is a supernatural—a new species to add to the ever-expanding group of weird, magic-endowed characters who have appeared in this series.


     All of the PAX ARCANA short stories take place in John's past, before the action in the novels. Some of them are linked (like this one), but all can stand alone. This is a great little story, and Sam is an interesting character, but once again, you'll have to consider whether you want to pay $1.99 for a story of this brief length. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Talking Dirty" on the story's Amazon.com page. Just click on the cover art.

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