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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Charlaine Harris & Christopher Golden: CEMETERY GIRL TRILOGY

Author:  Charlaine Harris & Christopher Golden
Art:  Don Kramer
Colors:  Daniele Rudoni
Letters: Jacob Bascle
Series:  CEMETERY GIRL TRILOGY (Graphic Novel Series)   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality1; Humor—1 
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley
         The Pretender (1/2014)  

     Set in Dunhill Cemetery in an unknown city, this series begins on a dark and stormy night when an unidentified, dark-clothed figure seen only in silhouette drags the unconscious body of a young girl out of a car trunk and throws her down into the cemetery where she strikes her head on a gravestone. When she awakens, all she can remember are some splintered fragments of a violent beating followed by an injection. She doesn't know who she is, and she can't remember anything about her life before this moment.  

            GRAPHIC NOVEL 1:  The Pretenders            
Calexa chooses her name.
     The injured heroine decides that the safest place for her to live is in a cemetery crypt, and this novel covers the first 68 days she spends in the cemetery after she awakens, bruised and bloody, with no idea of who she is or whether anyone is looking for her. Deciding that she needs a name, she takes her last name from the cemetery and her first and middle names from some headstones: Calexa Rose Dunhill. 

     Now that the series mythology—amnesiac teenage girl attacked and abandoned in cemetery—is in place, the story line expands to include Anthony (Tony) Kelner, the cemetery caretaker, and Lucinda Cameron, an elderly woman who lives across the street. (Note: I love that the kindly groundskeeper is named after Harris' good friend and frequent collaborator, Toni L. P. Kelner.) Calexa steals food from both of them, and they eventually befriend her, although she refuses to tell them why she won't leave the cemetery. Each time a funeral is held in the cemetery, Calexa watches from afar and is shocked to discover that she can see the spirits of the dead as they rise from their freshly dug graves and go off into the sky.

    Then, one dark night, some local teenagers invade the cemetery to set up an amateurish demon summoning, which doesn't work. Shortly thereafter, Willie, one of the teens, is killed by a drunk driver and is buried in the cemetery. Days later, the teens come back for another ceremony, but this time they commit murder as part of their gruesome ritual. When their victim dies, her spirit pours into Calexa, flooding Calexa's mind with the dead girl's personal memories. Now, Calexa has a decision to make: Should she continue hiding, or should she try to bring justice to the pitiful spirit who is begging for her help?

     Calexa is a terrific heroine. She begins as a beaten-down victim and slowly puts together a new life, one that has absolutely no personal memories to rely on for guidance. In effect, she's making it up as she goes along, beginning with shelter and food, and then developing a support system. But even as Calexa carries out her new daily routine, she is always surrounded by the terrifying fear that looms over her every moment of the day and night: fear of the unknown circumstances her past life, fear of the mysterious person who beat her and injected her and left her for dead, and an overriding fear of the authorities. What if the police find her and send her home, and what if home is where the danger lies?

     The events that make up the plot serve several purposes. 
   > Setting up a strong mystery story arc that will certainly lead to the eventual unveiling of the identity of Calexa's attacker and to her true identity. 

   > Revealing Calexa's moral center. Even though her fear of the police keeps her from notifying them about the murder, she figures out a way to bring the killers to justice while protecting herself. When she steals food, she feels guilty, but she is pragmatic enough to realize that she has to do what it takes to survive (but with the least amount of harm).

   > Alerting Calexa that she can see the spirits of the dead and that they can communicate with her, which will certainly play a major part in future books.

     The realistic art and the dramatic color are absolutely perfect for the story. In fact, Kramer's art really tells the story through body language and facial expressions because the text is minimal. The artwork alone is particularly successful in developing the characters of Lucinda and Tony. 

Calexa watches a spirit rise from its grave.
    Rudoni uses distinct differentiations in hue and tone to separate the scenes. The nighttime cemetery scenes have lots of blacks and grays, while the daytime scenes are earth-brown and sky-blue. The scenes in the homes of the caretaker and the elderly woman take place mostly at night (at least, at first), so they are dark, with subdued colors in the furniture and walls. A saturated red is used sparingly as an unexpected and shocking accent: Calexa's red shoes, the red apple Calexa is stealing when Lucinda first catches her, Mr. Kelner's red hat, the red rose at Willie's funeral, the mottled blood-red background when Cerise raises her knife to kill her victim. The spirits of the dead look like wispy, greenish-gray genies, moaning their way to heaven (or wherever they are going). Dream sequences are sepia-toned. 

     Taken together, the art and the color clearly communicate all aspects of the story and invariably evoke the appropriate tone and emotion. Click HERE and scroll down a bit for an up-close view of the artwork in the trailer for The Pretenders.

     Finally, let's deal with the negative reviews that I've been reading on the Internet, most of which are criticisms of graphic novels in general rather than criticisms of this specific book. Following are some of the general negative comments along with my responses to them: 

>  Comment: "I finished it in less than an hour." "Too expensive." "I read it through quickly and put it on the shelf." "This isn't a real book."
>  My ResponseThese books are called graphic novels for a reason; they are a carefully contrived combination of pictures (graphics) and words that, together, tell a story. The Pretender is 125 pages long, the length of a short print novella, but if it were a print novella—without any pictures at all—it would be much longer, simply because the artwork takes away the author's need to write extensive descriptions of the setting, characters, and scene details. In other words, you do not create a graphic novel the same way you do a print novel, and you definitely do not read them the same way. 

     The artwork is there for a reason—to add depth and delineation. The two symbol systems—words and images—work in concert to pull the reader into the story. As a reader, you might skim through the book quickly the first time just to get the story line, but then you'd go back and take a closer look at the art—the facial expressions, the shadows, the special effects. All of these give you insight into the characters and plot, and all would have had to have been scripted at great length in a regular print novel. Remember those boring info dumps of exposition that we all complain about in print novels? Well, guess info dumps here—just a seamless intertwining of words and images that set the scene, fill in the details, and keep the story moving. 

     As for the expense: Keep in mind that you're getting a well-bound hardback book printed in full color on paper of extremely high quality. It's not the same as buying a pulp-paper, mass-market paperback with a binding that splits the first time you read it.

>  Comment: "I didn't know it was a comic book." "I thought it was an actual book—not a graphic novel."
>  My ResponseOn, the book is labeled a graphic novel on its Kindle page, and amazon includes preview pages of the artwork on the book's hardcover page. The graphic novel genre is also mentioned in the first line of the book description for both the Kindle and hardback versions. Here's what it says: "Charlaine Harris…and Christopher Golden present an original graphic novel illustrated by acclaimed comic book artist Don Kramer…." It could not be stated any more clearly. Therefore, I'm not sure why anyone ordering the book (at least from amazon) wouldn't realize that it is a graphic novel. 

>  Comment: "Not a graphic novel fan." "I don't like comic book format."
>  My ResponseTo these readers, I ask…How many graphic novels have you read? Did you ever read a print novel that you didn't like? Did that experience make you stop reading print novels? Perhaps you just haven't found a graphic novel that appeals to you. Or perhaps you're not quite sure how to read graphic novels. If that's the case, click HERE to read "What Is a Graphic Novel," a brief introduction to what comics are, how they work, and how to read them. Click HERE to read an article entitled, "Why Read Graphic Novels?" Click HERE to read an article from the Los Angeles Times entitled "Graphic Novels: Reading, But in a Different Way." 

>  Comment: "Hate the way it looks on my Kindle."
>  My Response:1 Personally, I'm not sure why anyone would purchase an e-book version of a graphic novel. To me, part of the pleasure of a graphic novel is tactile, and it also requires seeing the whole page at onceflipping through the slick pages and enjoying the color, depth, and shading of the artwork across each page. I'm not convinced that the e-book experience would be as enjoyable as the print experience. I had planned to buy the book to download on my Kindle Fire so that I could test this out, but unfortunately, I have an older Fire that is not compatible with this download. Click HERE to read Jennifer Estep's recent post entitled "Graphic NovelsTo Read in Print or E-Book?"

Here are two more related links that might be useful to newbie graphic novel readers: 
     Click HERE to view a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Some Graphic Novel Basics." Click HERE to read a guide entitled "Graphic Novel/Comics: Terms and Concepts."

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Author:  Kristen Painter
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
          House of the Rising Sun (5/2014)
          City of Eternal Night (12/2014)   
          Garden of Dreams and Desires (4/2015)(FINAL)

This post was revised and updated on 5/19/15 to include a review of Garden of Dreams and Desires, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.     

                     NOVEL 3:  Garden of Dreams and Desires                    
      FAIR WARNING: This review of Garden of Dreams and Desires      
      contains spoilers for City of Eternal Night.      

    As the novel begins, each group of characters is dealing with its own specific project. As the action proceeds, the author finds a way to make sure that all of the bad guys and gals get their comeuppance and that the hero and heroine get their HEA.

   > Augustine Robelais and Lally Hughes, his magic-touched housekeeper, are trying to figure out how to get rid of the evil Ava Mae, the twin sister who has taken possession of Harlow's body and is continuing to suppress Harlow's personality.

    > The sibling witches, Giselle and Zara Vincent, along with their paramour, the wizard Ian Dufrene, are collecting human souls in order to cast a chaos spell that will strip the magic from the fae of New Orleans so that the witches can take over.

    > Father Rufus Ogun, the evil voodoo priest, has discovered the two-souled Ava Mae and plans to use her for his own purposes.

    > The odious Hugo Loudreux, the Prime of New Orleans (head of the fae council), is still trying to do some type of harm to Harlow, because he holds Harlow responsible for the fact that her late father kidnapped Hugo's daughter (in the previous book).

    > Olivia Goodwin is still stuck on the Fae Plain, although she trying to learn how to use mirror travel so that she can move between realms.

     The central plot centers on a bigoted U.S. senator, Irene Pellimento, whose son Robbie disappears in New Orleans. Pellimento is certain that the kidnappers were othernaturals, and she is out for blood. As it turns out, the senator is correct in her suspicions because Robbie is one of the souls collected by Giselle to feed her chaos spell. In order to throw suspicion elsewhere, Giselle frames Augustine for the crime, which puts him into the hands of the senator's sadistic mercenaries several times during the story.

     The action-oriented story moves back and forth among the characters as each one moves ahead with his or her plans, some of which succeed and some of which are thwartedall quite predictably. Harlow is mostly absent during the earlier chapters, but once she finally becomes free of Ava Mae, she joins up with Auggie and his lieutenants to stop the witches. 

     Painter finally to defines some of the otherworldly terms she uses, but in at least one case, she makes a gaffe. Late in the novel, one of the otherworlders uses the term varcolai (aka shifters) in a conversation with Harlow. Harlow's improbable response is "Varcolai are shifters, right?" Now, Harlow has been interacting with varcolai since book 1. Surely by now she doesn't have to ask for clarification as to what they are.

     As in the two previous books, Harlow keeps critical information from Auggie. For example, at one point Auggie drugs Ava Mae so that he can speak to Harlow. The two share some information, but Harlow fails to tell Auggie that she has learned of an easy way to weaken Ava Mae and perhaps get rid of her permanently. Of course, sharing that information would have shortened the book considerably, but Painter shouldn't have put Harlow into that situation by allowing her to have the information and thenstupidlyfailing to pass it on to Auggie. This just accentuates the TSTL aspects of her personality, which are already considerable. Harlow has never been one of my favorite characters, and this book does not change my opinion. She does become tougher, but that's about it. At the end of the previous book, Harlow learned from Ava Mae that she has the power to force emotion into someone to the point that they are overwhelmed to the point of death (which is how Ava Mae killed her father, Branzino). In this book, she uses this new power to good advantage. The romance between Auggie and Harper never really clicks, mostly because they never have a personal dialogue in which they share any type of emotional connection. 

     This book is all action, but with no suspense or drama. Things happen, but we're never surprised because the events are so predictable. Additionally, there is no real attempt to develop the characters. They act and react to one another in various knee-jerk ways, but we never truly get to know any of them, and they never develop beyond the relatively shallow personalities they began with back in book 1. 

     This is an action-oriented, run-of-the-mill series with a host of one-dimensional characters (including the leads), and I truly had to force myself to finish this book. Although this is the final book in the series, it lacked drama and emotion and contained no big finale, although it did tie up most of the loose ends. In truth, I didn't even realize that it was the final book until after I finished reading it and took a closer look at the back cover. Click HERE to read an excerpt from the beginning of Garden of Dreams and Desires.


     This series takes place in the same universe as Painter's HOUSE OF COMARRÉ series. Click HERE to read my description of that series, which includes the details of the world-building and reviews of all the novels.

    CRESCENT CITY is one of New Orleans' nicknames, and that is where the story is set—in the year 2068. A year has passed since the ancient covenant between humans and othernaturals was broken, and othernaturals have revealed themselves to humans. (The covenant was broken at the end of the first novel in the COMARRÉ series.)

     In this world, New Orleans has long been controlled by the fae, led by the high fae council—the Elektos. The fae allow witches to live in New Orleans, but a fae curse keeps the vampires out. Any vampire who enters New Orleans immediately acquires the ability to daywalk, but loses that ability as soon as he or she leaves the city. Another feature of the curse is that when a vampire leaves New Orleans, he or she loses all memories of the visit. So far, this curse has resulted in very few vamps in New Orleans—a situation that is highly satisfactory for the fae, the witches, and the humans.  

     The series hero is Augustine (aka Augie, aka Gussie) Robelais, a fae hybrid (shadeux fae and smokesinger) whom we met in COMARRÉ when he helped his brother's friend, Chrysabelle, enter the fae plane. (Chrysabelle is the heroine of the COMARRÉ series.) When Augustine helped Chrysabelle—a mortal—go into the fae realm, he violated one of the Elektos' most sacred rules, so as the series opens, he is just returning to his hometown of New Orleans after being on the run for about a year. Augustine is a laid-back, womanizing hedonist who is trying to forget his extremely unhappy childhood. His fae mother tried to pass for human and constantly berated Augustine because his gray skin and horns loudly proclaimed his fae heritage. Eventually, she kicked him out, and he lived with a street gang until a retired movie star, Olivia Goodwin, rescued him, brought home into her home, and raised him as if he were her own son.

     The series heroine is Harlow Goodwin, Olivia's estranged daughter, who turned her back on her mother when Mom refused to reveal Olivia's father's identity. Harlow wants to believe that her father is human, because she despises her fae heritage and wants nothing to do with the fae life. Unfortunately, Harlow's fae talent is impossible to ignore. She is psychometric, which means that she has the ability to "read" the history and emotions that are tied to every person or object that she touches. She is so sensitive that she must always wear gloves to prevent her skin from touching anyone or anything because those contacts always flood her mind with a sensory overload of emotions. Harlow has stayed away from her mother for years, refusing all communication and living an independent, if poor, life as a computer technologist. She works as a private contractor, taking jobs that fall in the gray area between legal fixes and illegal hacking. As the series opens, Harlow has just been sentenced to two years in prison for hacking into a computer system illegally. Paying an $850,000 fine would keep her out of prison, but she doesn't have any money, so she's on her way to New Orleans to ask her wealthy mother to bail her out.

                    NOVEL 1:  House of the Rising Sun                    
     Augustine and Harlow meet on the first night they arrive in New Orleans. It's the first new moon before Mardi Gras—a fae holiday called Nokturnos—and the custom is to have a few drinks and then kiss a stranger for luck. At the time of this meeting, Harlow and Augustine have no idea of their mutual connection with Olivia. They merely succumb to an alcohol-fueled attraction and share a passionate embrace.

     The plot centers on the fact that someone is bringing vampires into New Orleans—vampires who are killing both fae and humans (mostly drunken female tourists). When vampires murder the Guardian of the City, the Elektos asks Augustine to take the position. At first, he refuses, but then when Olivia falls victim to a vamp attack, he agrees because he wants revenge. The Guardian's job is to protect the city and its citizens, so Augustine has his work cut out for him.

     Meanwhile, Harlow has time for only one short and unsatisfying meeting with her mother before Olivia dies. Harlow is, of course, deeply shocked by Olivia's death, mostly because she won't get her money and will never know who her father was. (It is at this point that I started to dislike Harlow intensely.) Throughout most of the book, Harlow is a petulant, unsociable, selfish young woman who thinks only of herself. She behaves more like an adolescent YA heroine than an adult. Although her mother sent her to private schools and provided an expensive college education, Harlow focuses only on the fact that Olivia would never identify her father. No matter how much Olivia has done for Harlow throughout her life, that refusal of information is the way Harlow defines their relationship. Harlow is an extremely unlikable person for about 3/4 of the story. Towards the end, she begins to become more reasonable, but by that time, I was sick of her attitude. 

     The title of this book refers to the old song, "House of the Rising Sun," which, according to fae legend was written about Olivia's house. The house, which began as a fae brothel magically hidden from humans, is rumored to be haunted. (Click HERE to view a video of "House of the Rising Sun" being performed by the Animals.) After Olivia's will is read, her house becomes very important to the relationship between Augustine and Harlow.

     Most of the book follows Augustine as he tries to solve the vampire mystery, coping with Harlow's histrionics every step of the way. The attraction between the two keeps getting stronger as the story moves along, and eventually Augustine gets Harlow involved in the investigation. I don't want to give away too many plot points, so I won't provide any more details except to say that Harlow learns that the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for" is definitely a warning that should be taken to heart.

     The author sets up a nice conflict: an unknown or othernatural is smuggling violent vampires into New Orleans, and the hero must get rid of the vamps and find out who is responsible for bringing them to the city. Unfortunately, that conflict is only partially resolved. The book finishes with one of those "to be continued" endings—always an unsatisfying reading experience. Another problem: The two "investigators" (Augustine and Harlow) figure out everything all at once in a few paragraphs in the final chapters—not by following clues, but by making huge, improbable leaps to always-correct conclusions. Even though they never have any real evidence on which to base their wild guesses, their hunches are never wrong.

     The pacing is quite slow because for some reason Augustine doesn't have a real plan to track down the vamps. You'd think that he would have some type of informant network set up among the fae, but no…none of his information comes that way. Also, since the vamps are staying in the relatively small French Quarter, how hard could it be to find them? Very hard, I guess, because Augustine spends the entire book looking for them. The only clues that Augustine gets come from Harlow when he talks her into "reading" various objects that turn up at the crime scenes. Because Harlow has suppressed her psychometric abilities, she doesn't know how to control them—meaning that her attempts are always filled with major drama. Additionally, she is so hostile to Augustine that through much of the book he has to cajole her into helping him. Then out of nowhere, in one highly improbable scene, she sneaks off and follows him on one of his nighttime protection walks around the city. This makes no sense at all because she has been spending most of her time doing nothing but snarling at Augustine and slouching around her mother's house pouting and feeling sorry for herself.  

     Now for the supporting characters, who exemplify a gallery of stereotypes: the loyal, African-American housekeeper who spends her time cooking and spouting bits of folk wisdom; the streetwise ex-girlfriend with the snarky mouth and the heart of gold; the rebellious daughter who hates her father's tradition-bound ways and longs to rule in his place; and the one-dimensional, power-mad villain who will do anything to further his own gains. These characters are completely predictable in both words and actions.

     All in all, I'm not too impressed with this novel. I realize that the first novel in a series is always problematic because of the need to fill in the mythology, but Painter doesn't really do much of that here. She inserts a world-building element here and there, but not in a cohesive manner. Although she mentions numerous types of fae and uses the word varcolai (which, in this world, is a shapeshifter), she doesn't define any of her otherworldly terms. If she doesn't plan to include the world-building elements in the text, then she should make her books user friendly by adding a glossary. Perhaps Painter assumes that everyone has read her COMARRÉ series, but that's an arrogant and erroneous assumption that actually punishes those who pick up this book without having read the COMARRÉ novels. I'll read the next book just to see if Painter gets a better handle on her plotting and world-building and adds some depth to her characterization.

                    NOVEL 2:  City of Eternal Night                    
      FAIR WARNING: This review of City of Eternal Night      
      contains spoilers for the previous novel.      
     The action picks up just a few weeks after the end of book 1. With the evil and dangerous raptor fae, Joseph Branzino, still on the loose, Augustine is in protective mode with Harlow, and Harlow is trying to figure out why Branzino is so determined to get possession of Olivia's house (which now is owned jointly by Augustine and Harlow). Meanwhile, ever since Branzino kidnapped her, Harlow has had a dark, empty feeling deep inside her and has been having weird and disturbing nightmares.

     In a separate but related story line, Giselle (the evil witch from book 1) is having problems with two "fathers": Father Ogun, the voodoo priest she partnered up with in book 1, and her real father, Evander, who is the head of the coven. Unfortunately (for Evander), his goals don't exactly match up with Giselle's plans for the witches of New Orleans. Giselle's sister, Zara, also plays a part in the action. She is obviously keeping some secrets from Giselle that will no doubt be further developed in future books.

     The primary plot revolves around the kidnapping of the daughter of Hugo Loudreux, the Prime of New Orleans (head of the fae council). Rue is a teenager who was chosen to be the Faery Queen at the annual Exemplar Krewe Ball during the Mardi Gras festival. According to tradition, the Queen is kidnapped by masked marauders and is then ransomed by her father, but this time, the marauders keep Rue and demand Augustine's death as the pay-off. That demand is a clear clue as to who took Rue, but it takes Augustine and his allies more time than is necessary to figure out identity of the villain. Just as in book 1, even though Augustine is the magically powerful Guardian of the city, he is completely ineffective in solving crimes. So where is all this power he is supposed to have? We never see it in this book except when he does some minor mirror traveling. Otherwise, he might as well be human. 

     All through this book Augustine and Harlow keep important secrets from one another. This well-worn genre trope is the author's awkward method for stretching her already thin plot from novella-length to novel-length. As soon as Lally reveals to Harlow the "Big Secret" of Olivia's house and the contents of the alabaster box, we know exactly what Harlow will do because it's another of the oldest and creakiest tropes in paranormal fiction. When Lally warns Harlow that if she uses the House's magic, it "will give you anything your heart desires, but not without a cost," we can predict what the dreadful consequences will be because we already know that Harlow is a thoughtless young woman who never pays attention to anyone's good advice. Most of the action in the book is signaled well in advance, loudly and clearly and frequently. As a result, when we get to the "reveal" moments and showdown scenes, there is little drama or suspense.

     This is a disappointing book that is part of a run-of-the-mill genre series. Harlow continues to be a weak and whiny heroine (although her new situation adds slyness and sluttiness to her personality), and Augustine is a character without depth. Painter is a "tell, not show" writer, so Augustine's actions are generally related to the current plot events, not to his long-term emotional state. Although Augustine tells Harlow about the sad circumstances of his childhood (in a single, brief scene), he never reveals any lasting emotional effects through his actions or thoughts, so his "story" comes across as just thata dispassionately told tale that has had little or no real effect on the person Augustine is today. The author throws in a handsome fae male to create a rival for Augustine (an attempt at the odious love triangle that we all love to hate), but that relationship comes across as artificial and improbable. 

    Once again, Painter occasionally uses otherworldly terms without explanation or context. She should either explain the terms or provide a glossary. She makes frequent references to events that took place in the previous book, but doesn't provide context for those events. She also drops characters from the COMARRÉ series into the story for no apparent reason. Why was it necessary for Mal and Chrysabelle to accompany Mortalis to New Orleans when they served no real purpose in the plot. 

     And one last quibble: Nothing on the front cover of this book indicates that it is part of a series, so a reader dazzled by the extremely attractive cover art could easily pick it up expecting a stand-alone novel. That would be a disappointment because Painter is writing this as a series that absolutely requires the reader of this book to have read the preceding book first. Like the first book, this one has a "to-be-continued" ending, always a let-down for me even when I know in advance that I am reading a series-centric book. Orbit should have been honest and straight-forward with readers by clearly printing "Book 2 of the CRESCENT CITY SERIES" on the front cover. (The "second book" notation is placed in small print midway down the back cover.) The cover art may be beautiful, but the story itself is at "C" level. Click HERE to read an excerpt from the beginning of City of Eternal Night.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Angela Knight: Wicked Games Anthology

Author:  Angela Knight
Title:  Wicked Games   
Plot Type: Erotic Fantasy     
Publisher:  Berkley (4/2014)  

     In the first paragraph of her "Foreword," Knight warns readers that, "If you're one of those people who thinks my MAGEVERSE books are too sexy, put Wicked Games down and back slowly away. It's nasty. Spankings. Bondage. Assorted sex toys, magical and otherwise….And then they get down to bid'ness. Like I said, nasty." On Knight's web site, she posts another warning: "The Once and Future Lover" is much more erotic than the rest of the MAGEVERSE series, featuring elements of bondage and submission." Consider yourself warned.

     Even though I read Knight's warnings, I was not really prepared for the extreme level of female degradation in these three stories. The three female lead characters are definitely not willing players, particularly in the two short novellas. All three women are physically overpowered by über-alpha sadists who force all kinds of extremely kinkyactually, beyond kinkyperversions on them. And then—unbelievably!each woman actually begins to enjoy and yearn for more of the debasement, pain, and humiliation and decides that this is the man with whom she wants to spend the rest of her life. 

     In Knight's "Foreword," she whiplashes back and forth on the subject of male rapists. First, she says that "Any bastard who'd take a woman against her will needs to have a bullet put tenderly into his brain stem." Then, a paragraph later, she says, "In real-life BDSM, nobody plays any game until everybody consents to whatever happens." (Trust me, the women in these stories do NOT consent to their treatment as unwilling submissives, and they are given NO safewords.) Finally, Knight gives us a history lesson in male-female relationships: "Before iPhones, before Fifth Avenue penthouses, before indoor plumbing…men were men and women were women….A girl needed somebody quick, strong, and ferociously protective to make sure she and the kiddies had enough for lunch without becoming lunch for some saber-toothed kitty cat. If you survived, there was a good chance it was because you were sleeping with an aggressive son of a bitch who was handy with a club. A couple of hundred thousand years later we're still looking for aggressiveif lovingSOBs." Really? Modern women are looking for violent, arrogant, rapists with clubs (and dildos)? How does that square up with Knight's "bullet in the brain stem" sentence just a few paragraphs back? Knight winds things up by claiming that "For some of us...there's something about being tied up and banged like a kettle drum by a guy who looks like The Rock." If that person is you, you'll probably love this book. Clearly, that person is not me, so I didn't enjoy it at all.

     The first novella is a MAGEVERSE prequel that tells the story of how Arthur and his crew drank from Merlin's Grail and were transformed from normal humans into immortal super-strong, shape-shifting vampires and magic-wielding witches. Click HERE to read my review of the MAGEVERSE series, which includes an explanation of the world-building.

     Knight wrote the other two novellas way back in 1990 (long before Fifty Shades of Grey was even a sadomasochistic glint in E.L. James's eye). The stories weren't published until 2001, when they appeared as part of an e-book anthology entitled Bodice Rippers under the pseudonym Anastasia Day.

            NOVELLA 1:  "The Once and Future Lover"            
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality5; Humor—1 

     This novel-length story (217 pages) takes place in 500 AD, when the legendary King Arthur led his knights against the Saxon invaders of Britain. In Knight's mythology, Arthur and his wife, Gwen (aka Guinevere) have a loving, faithful marriage. When Arthur was just 17, before he met Gwen, he had a one-night stand with Morgana (aka Morgan le Fay), which resulted in the birth of Arthur's bastard son, Mordred, the villain of this novella. 

     As the story begins, the wizard Merlin and his lover, the witch Nimue, appear out of thin air before Arthur and his followers. They offer a drink from the Grail to the winner of a fight to the death between Arthur and Mordred, who has just challenged Arthur for the title of king. In this version of the legend, Gwen and Morgana have become close friends, and Arthur and Gwen have done their best to bring Mordred into their familybut without success. Mordred hates Arthur and lusts after Gwen. The story follows the events that take place after Arthur wins the battle, drinks from the Grail, and is transformed into the first Magus (vampire). Then, Gwen drinks from the Grail and becomes the first Maja (witch). Eventually, Merlin transforms a total of 12 men and 12 women into immortal Magi and Majae.

     The process of changing from human to Magi involves a day or two of unconsciousness followed immediately by a period of fierce bloodlust, with emphasis on the lust. If you remember Arthur as the nerdy but genial oddball from the MAGEVERSE novels, you'll be sorry to meet him here as a newly emerging Magus because he turns into a lust-driven thug who loses his temper, refuses to listen to reason, and forces Gwen to submit sexually to him without her consent. (I believe that is called rape.) Gwen actually comes across as the stronger, more likable character in this little tale.

     In a violently sexual scene midway through the story, we get Knight's version of what really happened between Gwen and Lancelot to sour their relationship. Although there is plenty of graphically described sexual activity in this story, it pales in comparison to the two short novellas that complete this volume. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "The Once and Future Lover."

    The book also contains one more piece of MAGEVERSE: an excerpt from Morgana's story, "Oath of Service," which will appear in Love Bites, Knight's anthology of three erotic vampire fantasies (to be published in August 2014). In that BDSM novel-length story, Morgan will be dominated by three of Arthur's knights: Percival, Cador, and Marrok.  

            NOVELLA 2:  "Bondage, Beauty and the Beast"            
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality5; Humor—0 

     In this BDSM version of Beauty and the Beast, a beautiful noblewoman is sold into slavery by her wicked stepson after her husband's death. The buyer is a fur-covered, horned beast who has been cursed by a witch. The entire story consists of the Beast and his sidekick putting the woman through one sadistic torture after another. Unbelievably, though, she begins to enjoy being hung up in harnesses, tied up in various horrific positions, gagged, clamped, spanked, beaten with a whip, and penetrated in every possible orifice. By the end of the story, she's begging for more.

            NOVELLA 3:  "A Question of Pleasure"            
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality5; Humor—0 

     Take all of the BDSM activity of novella 2 and change the scene to America during the Civil War. The Beast in this tale is a Union officer, and his victim is a lovely female spy who posed as his lover to gain information for the South. He catches her in the act of searching his desk and does to her everything that I described in the the previous review. He even adds something new: handing her off to a fellow officera more experienced torturerfor even more humiliation and pain. Once again, the story ends with their HEBDSMA (Happily Ever BDSM After). This story has no paranormal elements.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014



I have just updated a previous post for Jacquelyn Frank with a review of Forged, the fourth novel in her WORLD OF THE NIGHTWALKERS SERIES.     

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Author:  G. T. Almasi
Plot Type:  Alternate History;  Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality2; Humor—3 
Publisher and Titles:  Random House: Del Rey
          Blades of Winter (8/2012)
          Hammer of Angels (2/2014)
          Legion of Scorpio (working title)    

     This post begins with an overview of the world-building and continues with reviews of the first two novels in this series.    

     In this alternate history, four world powers (called the Four) emerged victorious from World War II and divided most the world amongst themselves: the U.S.A., Greater Germany, National Republic of China, and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (aka Russia). Germany rules all of Western Europe (including Great Britain) and parts of the Middle East. China has power over South Asia and Indonesia, except for Japan and South Korea, which are ruled by the U.S. Russia controls Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and the rest of the Middle East. Here is the Map Key:
     Dark Blue: U.S.A.
     Light Blue: U.S.A. Allies
     Dark Green: Greater Germany
     Light Green: Germany Allies
     Red: National Republic of China
     Pink: China Allies
     Brown: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
     Orange: Independent    

     In real-life history, the Cold War existed between Russia and the U.S. in the decades after WWII, but in this mythology, that period—from 1948 to the present—is called the Shadowstorm, a time of insidious covert and overt spying among the Four powers. Each country has its own elite forces who have become a shadowy, but violent, part of life. In each book, information related to the world-building is occasionally inserted into the story line in the form of historical summaries, pertinent reports and memos, and sections from a technical manual of defense technology. 

     The Shadowstorm is not a war of armies; it is a war of stealth. Led by the Germans, the Four have used biotechnology to develop teams of superspies, covert agents who are highly trained and technologically enhanced. These superspies are called Levels. There are seven common types of specialists within the Levels: Infiltrator, Protector, Interceptor, Vindicator, Malefactor, and Liberator. (Brief descriptions of each level can be found on page 21 of Blades of Winter.)

     The series heroine is Alixandra Janina Nico (aka Alix, aka Scarlether field name), who begins the series at age nineteen as an ExOps Level 4 Interceptor, but by the end of book 1, she has been promoted to a Level 8. An Interceptor carries out "short and medium-length insertions, usually on foreign soil. An Interceptor typically works with an intelligence-enhanced partner known as an Information Operator [IO]." (Blades of Winterp. 21) Although Alix is small in stature, she is a quick learner and a tenacious fighter and has risen through the ranks of the Levels very quickly. As Alix says, "I took to guns the way a senator takes to interns." (Blades of Winterp. 129) She has spent the past eight years in Expo's youth training camp, Authentically Gifted Operatives General Education (AGOGE, nicknamed Camp A-Go-Go). Alix's father (Philip Nico, field nameBig Bertha, nicknamethe Beast) was the highest ranked Level (20) at the time of his capture and presumed execution by the Germans eight years ago. Now Alix is poised to match or even exceed her father in skill and courage. As the series opens, Alix lives in Crystal City, Virginia (near Arlington) with her mother, who works in Administration at ExOps. 

     Each Level has had a number of Mods and Enhances. Here, Alix explains: "Mods are generally hardware, like my electrohydraulically accelerated joints or the nano ligaments that hold my limbs together while I leap tall buildings in a single bound. Enhances tend to be soft upgrades centered around my augmented nervous system. The heart of this system is called a neuroinjector, which manages the flow of drugs that help me react quickly and deal with stressful situations without losing my mind." (Blades of Winterp. 9) Here, Alix describes her knees: "My knees look perfectly normal if you only take a quick look. A closer inspection reveals that there isn't any skin there, only flesh-colored metal and plastic. My ankles and elbows are the same way…." (Blades of Winterp. 10) Alix carries a smartalmost sentientgun that can adjust the caliber and speed of bullets depending on her situation.  

     In the U.S., the Levels work for the Extreme Operations Division (aka ExOps). As Alix explains, ExOps "is a non-public-facing U.S. intelligence agency that specializes in, well, extreme operations. Missions range from high-security black bag jobs to whacking well-protected people. When one of the aboveground U.S. agencies needs an especially nasty job done, it calls us." (Blades of Winter, p. 7)     

            NOVEL 1:  Blades of Winter            
     As the series opens, Alix's father has been dead for eight years, and she is trying to live up to his reputation as the toughest, most deadly Level in ExOps. She maintains an arrogant, confident outlook and is sure of her abilities as an assassin and spy. One day when a Level 12 calls in sick, she finagles her way into taking his "Creep 'n Peep" assignment, even though she is only a Level 4. That assignment is to covertly follow a target who is a former Russian Level, now retired. As Alix sits across a restaurant from him and his companion, the companion begins to shoot at her. Eventually, this supposedly simple observation job turns into a major shoot-out between Alix and the companion's support team, which includes a helicopter and ground support. After Alix escapes and returns home safely, the repercussions of her escapade ripple through ExOps because her involvement in this supposedly simple assignment uncovers a major conspiracy with far-reaching causes and effects.

     Both the mythology and the plot are extremely complex, but if you just follow Alix and trust her reliable narration (in her cocky, arrogant first-person voice), she will pull you though to the fiery conclusion. Alix and her IO, Patrick (aka Trick, field name—Solomon), travel back and forth between the U.S., Paris, and the Middle East as they try to determine why some mysterious, but inept, Russians are trying to kill Alix and how her father's final assignment is involved in this current brouhaha. In battle scenes, Alix is kind of like a superhero from the X-Men pantheon with her powerful weaponry, enhanced senses, and prosthetic limbs. She leaps; she slashes; she shoots; she jumps off buildings; and she blows things up—all with astonishing speed and accuracy. Nearly every assignment ends with Alix being hospitalized for horrendous injuries, some of which require new prosthetics to replace human parts that get mangled or blown off. Through it all, Alix is like the iconic Energizer Bunny: she just keeps going and going and going.

     Alix and Patrick are not only partners, but lovers. They are extremely close and have even developed their own sign language that they use during their various capers. On and off the job, they "comm" (communicate through surgically implanted phones) each other constantly. Patrick is the brains—the tech wizard, so to speak. He frequently stays off-scene, guiding Alix through cities and/or buildings by using schematic information so accurate that it shows blueprints of every building Alix enters. He follows her GPS signal through the building and directs her where to turn, where to hide, and where her target is located.

     A second male character also plays an important role: Raj, a Level 9 Vindicator who carries some major weaponry. At first, Alix and Raj are antagonistic towards one another, but by the end of book 1, they have become allies. As Alix explains their early relationship, "We were both hopped-up, psychotically competitive youths with more pride than sense." (p. 17) Will Raj develop into a love interest? It's too soon to tell.

     Eventually, the plot branches into two related story lines, a German cloning operation called the Carbon Program and an oil-related scheme being perpetrated by the Blades of Persia, an anti-German group in Saudi Arabia. Spies, counterspies, terrorists, traitors, rebels—this book has them all.

     Alix is a terrific character (if you can just get past her egotism). As she suffers through one bloody, violent battle after another, she develops PTSD and begins to rely more and more on alcohol and drugs to keep her calm and steady. Alix has promised herself that she won't become alcohol and drug-dependent like her father, but already she is slipping into his way of dealing with the high stress of being a Level. By the end of the book, she is having frequent nightmares and, even worse, hallucinating—seeing enemies who aren't there—and she's afraid to admit to her superiors that she needs treatment. All she can think of is finding out what really happened to her father and taking down the villain who set him up to be captured. The villains in the story are numerous and complex. Some do what they do for personal reasons having to do with events of the past, and who is to say that they are totally wrong in what they do. Others are more traditional, one-dimensional bad guys who are in it for the power or because they want to cover up their bad deeds while still maintaining their positions of power. The author does a great job with the difficult first-person voice. Alix is quite a character, and her narration is just as hyperactive as her fighting skills. To give you an idea of her voice and tone, she describes her escape from hordes of enemy soldiers in a violent and bloody car chase through the middle of Riyadh as "the Slaytona 500 we just smeared across the city." (p. 327)

     This is the beginning of what looks to be a great seriesfull of fast-paced excitement carried out by interesting characters. Almasi's alternate world is meticulously constructed and well-explained. I'm looking forward to book 2.

     WARNING: The review of Hammer of Angels (below) contains     
     SPOILERS for those of you who haven't read Blades of Winter.     

            NOVEL 2:  Hammer of Angels            
     The second book begins three months after the end of book 1. By now, Alix has gotten used to the fact that her new partner is a clone. She was shocked to learn that her previous partner was also a clone. There are actually three "Patrick" clones, each with a different middle name. Her first partner (and lover) was Patrick Allan Owens, who was killed in book 1. Her current partner is Patrick Brandon Owens. The third brother is Patrick Charles Owen, and he currently works in Japan as a strategic analyst. The three were part of an early American cloning program, but when that program was defunded, the three boys were raised as identical triplets by a childless couple. After her initial shock at meeting Patrick Brandon, Alix decides to call him Brando (because of his middle name and because he loves The Godfather). She tries to keep her grief for Trick in check and eventually forms a close (very close) relationship with her new Patrick, whose field name is Darwin.

     Life has been full of shocks for Alix lately. Her fatherpresumed dead for eight yearsis alive, but in the hands of the Germans in a cloning facility. Jakob Fredericks, the American traitor who sold him out is now the top advisor to the U.S. president (Reagan) and can't be held accountable for his actionsmostly because he has so much dirt on government higher-ups that they're afraid of him.

     In Blades of Winter, Alix and Patrick created some major problems in U.S.-German foreign relations when they were instrumental in the destruction of a cloning laboratory in Zurich and a terrorist base in Riyadh that was masquerading as a research facility. These two events caused massive property damage and the loss of many lives, including a large group of German youth who were supposed to have cleared the laboratory building before a missile struck it. Now, Germany is threatening to withdraw from the North Atlantic Alliance and join the Pan-Asian Pact, which would pit Germany, Russia, and China against the U.S. Not to worry, though, because the government has come up with a cunning plan called Operation Angel (an acronym for Affected Naturalization of Germany's Enslaved Labor). The goal of this operation is to "temporarily destabilize the Reich by instigating a revolt among the slave population in Europe, beginning in England." (chapter 4) In this alternate world, the Nazis did not kill millions of Jews in concentration camps. Instead, they forced all Jews to have the Star of David tattooed around one of their eyes and then enslaved them. As part of the Operation Angel plan, teams of ExOps agents will infiltrate Europe, connecting with underground Jewish resistance groups to assist in instigating widespread revolts against the German government. Then, when the German government asks for U.S. aid in quelling the rebellion, the U.S. will offer assistance if and when Germany rejoins the North Atlantic Alliance. When Germany follows through on this, the U.S. will then withdraw its covert agentsall without Germany realizing that the Americans were the true instigators of the rebellion. Truly a cold-hearted planone that uses the enslaved Jews in a bait and switch scheme that will leave them without support when the U.S. gets what it wants from the German government. (Don't worry, thoughlike all government plans, Operation Angel doesn't work as expected.)

     Alix, Brando, and Raj are sent to England as one of the ExOps teams that will begin the rebellion. Alix is now a Level 9, just like Raj, and she is the team leader. From this point on, the plot plays out as a series of quick and dirty battles in which the ExOps team always slaughters the German soldiers, sometimes getting injured, but always recovering in time to for the next fight. After causing as much trouble as possible in England, Alix and Brando head for France to meet up with a new resistance group. When you get to the CORE report on their French contact, Garbo, be sure to read it carefully to learn just who Garbo really is. While in France, the group picks up a new sidekick, but I can't give you any information about him without a spoiler. Just be prepared for a shocker when you learn his identity. In addition to attacking German government facilities, Alix and her team also destroy a lot of property belonging to members of the Purity League, a thuggish group of anti-Semitic bigots who long for the days when Hitler was still in control.

     During one of their raids, Alix has another "conversation" with her father, whom she now knows is still alive. These spiritual conversations began in book 1, when Alix's gun began speaking to her in her father's voice. (The gun is named Li'l Bertha because it had belonged to her father, whose field name was Big Bertha). Problematically, Alix is also having horrific nightmares and is seeing hallucinations more and more frequently. During her adventures in this book, she even spaces out a few times, losing mental contact with reality in the midst of battle (not that it slows her down much).

     This is a comic-book of a plot, with one battle after another filled with disintegrating bodies, gushing blood, spurting brains, broken skulls, severed limbs (and heads)you get the picture. But since the action moves at breakneck speed, the gory scenes fly by too quickly for you to dwell on the carnage. Also, each battle is very different from the previous one. In one situation, Brando turns into MacGyver as he makes smoke bombs out of Coke cans, ping pong balls, and a bit of gun powder. In another scene, Alix and another agent kill two boatloads of enemy attackers by swimming out to them underwater armed only with knives. This is like every action movie or action comic you ever sawa riveting series of unbelievable exploits carried out by one young girl and her loyal and lethal buddies. Eventually, Operation Angel is so successful that it develops a mind of its own. As Alix says, ExOps is "a million-dollar murder machine designed to help topple whole governments," (chapter 5) and she's not wrong in the case of Project Angel.

     With its insanely fast pace and unkillable super-heroine, this book is a page-turner that you won't want to stop reading until you get to the last page of the requisite showdown scene and the tear-jerker of a reunion that follows. Almasi is a skilled writer who has come up with a terrific heroine and a great supporting cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own well-defined personality. I recommend this series for all of you who love action-heavy plots and don't mind a big dose of blood-and-guts annihilation. It even has some dark humor as Alix and her team engage in noir repartee during and in between battles.