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Monday, August 4, 2014


Author:  J. C. Nelson (pen name for Jason Nelson)
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3 
Publisher:  Ace     
      1      Free Agent (8/2014)
      1.2   "Special Delivery" (free on-line short story, 11/2015)
      1.5   "Soul Ink" (e-novella, 1/2015)
      2      Armageddon Rules (2/2015)
      3      Wish Bound (8/2015) (FINAL) 

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 10/2/15 to include a review of Wish Bound, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building, a review of the first two novels, and the publisher's blurb for the novella "Soul Ink."

                     NOVEL 3:  Wish Bound                     
     As a partner at Grimm’s magical Agency, Marissa Locks is used to working odd jobs. But when an evil queen reappears in Kingdom, life becomes too strange to handle. Even when she’s not starting it, trouble follows Marissa everywhere. First there was the incident with the homicidal Fairy Godmother. Then there was the time she accidentally started Armageddon. But the problems that always seem to arise on Marissa’s birthday take the cake.

     This year, her annual bad-luck presents include an army of invading goblins, the resurrection of two vengeful enemies from hell, and the return of the Black Queen, the evil sorceress whose reign of terror still haunts Kingdom and who happens to have claimed Marissa as her servant.

     As Marissa’s friends try to save her from the Black Queen’s clutches, Marissa fights to end a bitter war that started before her birth. But her quest for peace is about to bring up some inconvenient truths about her own past—ones that might cost her the happily ever after she’s always dreamed of.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Wish Bound on the book's page. To see the excerpt, click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

     This appears to be the final novel in this series, with all of the loose ends tied up and all of the long-standing questions answered in the frenzied final chapters. If you haven't read the first two books, you should read those first because Nelson doesn't provide much of a review of past events. Although the previous novel was published just six months prior to this one, I have read a lot of urban fantasy books in the meantime, and I like it when authors include some type of summary of the high points of the series in the early chapters just to jog my memory.

     As the story begins, Marissa is confronted with some huge problems. Somehow, the souls of the wicked Queen Mihail and her princely son have been stolen from the Adversary's Vault of Souls, and he wants Marissa to get them back. Then another villain from the past shows up: the Black Queen. All three of them want Marissa dead and will go to any lengths to achieve that goal. The plot focuses mostly on Marissa's ongoing confrontations with the Black Queen, who is determined to take down Grimm and his Kingdoms if he doesn't give her what she wantsand he definitely refuses to acquiesce to her demands. The story goes from one crisis to another as the Black Queen tries to bind Marissa up in her dark world of bitter hatred and horrifying evil.

     In this book, all of the supporting characters from the previous books get to take part in the action: 

    > Various species groups: the post office gnomes, Beth and her demonic poodles, and the New Jersey wolves. (At one point, Marissa even dons a Red Riding Hood cape just like the one that got her into so much trouble in book 1.)

     > Marissa's friends and Agency allies: her fiancéLiam; her best friendAri; Ari's fiancéWyatt; Wyatt's mother; and Mikeythe Agency intern (one of the New Jersey werewolves)

     All of the supernatural good and evil characters: the Adversary (aka the Devil), Death, Eli the angel, and the Authority (aka God) 

     Of course, Grimm does his behind-the-mirror thing all the way through the book, helping and/or hindering each of the main characters in some way or other. 

     The pace of this book is frenetically fast, and in the absence of any reminders of past events, I'll admit that sometimes I got a bit lost. But I just kept reading past the "blurry" parts until I got back on track. After a LOT of scenes portraying strategizing sessions, verbal jousting, and physical altercations, the big finale goes by so quickly that it's almost anticlimactic. Unfortunately, Nelson drops in some deus ex machina elements to get Marissa through the final battle in one piece. 

     The truth about who and what Marissa really is comes out of nowhere, but then when you think back on events in the previous books, it does make some sort of sense. When Marissa's true identity is revealed, we get the answers to some questionsboth big and smalllike these: Why do all of Marissa's attempts to celebrate happy occasions end in disaster? Why did the Adversary turn down Marissa's attempt to bargain her soul for the end of the apocalypse (in the previous book)? Why has Rose (the Agency's gun-toting receptionist) always hated Marissa? Why can't Marissa have children? What's the deal with that deadly wheel of evil cheese that has been stored in the Agency refrigerator for the past nine years? (Trust me, the mysterious cheese plays a vital role in the plot, although the sudden appearance of the refrigerator that holds it is one of the deus ex machina moments that I mentioned earlier.) 

     I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it does bring the series to a mostly satisfying conclusion, but on the other hand, the plot is messy and over-the-top frantic. The story has a fastfasterfastest pace and never slows down at all until the very endan exhausting book to read, especially when I had to keep trying to recall events from earlier books to which the characters constantly kept referring. If you have been a faithful reader of the series, you'll definitely want to see how it all ends. If you are a new reader, this is not the book to read first. 

     In this very entertaining new series, Nelson takes the whole range of Grimm's fairy tales and adds a dash of The Wizard of Ozmostly the wizard-behind-the-curtain part, although the heroine does have the same gumption and fearlessness that Dorothy displays as she tries desperately to find her way home. Instead of a curtain, Grimm, the "wizard" in this series, dwells within mirrors and other reflective surfaces, like shiny metal door handles, window glass, and water puddles. This talent allows Grimm to keep an eye on just about everything that is going on in the city. He also has additional magical abilities, like foretelling future events by doing auguries, a process that involves using rabbits in a way that would horrify PETA

     Grimm is the Fairy Godfather of an alternate New York City, and he spends much of his time granting wishes (for the right price) and keeping the city free of magical crimes and catastrophes. To handle the tough street work, Grimm has an all-female team of agents. When the series heroine, Marissa Locks (formerly Marissa Lambert, aka Goldilocks), asks him why he doesn't have any male agents, Grimm replies, "If you need something broken or burned or bashed, a man will do just fine…If you need a problem handled, you need a woman." (p. 183) Yay, Grimm!

     All of Grimm's agents are actually indentured servantsworking for him in order to pay off their wish debts. Most of them are paying for their own wishes, but Marissa is paying off a wish debt owed by her parents, who sacrificed Marissa's freedom for a wish that saved the life of her younger sister. Marissa has been under Grimm's direct control for six years—ever since her eighteenth birthday. First, Grimm sent her to community college, and then she became one of his hardest-working agents. Here's a description of a typical morning for Marissa: "I dealt with twelve dancing princesses with blisters on their feet (you would be surprised what wonders a gel insole can work). I put yet another frog in the aquarium until Grimm could deal with him. Before ten thirty I sent two kids who ate a gingerbread house to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped." (p. 65) As the series opens, all Marissa wants is to earn her freedom so that she can go home to her family. When she looks at Grimm's other agents, she realizes that they have all been working for Grimm for decades and have not yet paid off their debts, so she fears that she may never be free again. 

     Marissa is a lonely young woman with no real friends and no real lifeexcept for her job. One other thing about Marissa: she attracts trouble like a metal pole attracts lightning. Even when she tries her best, something always seems to go wrong. Many times though, her troubles can be traced to the fact that she can't seem to stop herself from making inappropriatefrequently sarcasticcomments to the wrong people at the wrong time and in the wrong places.

     The series mythology is totally based on fairy tales, so we have trolls, wicked witches, fairies, imps, and many more magical creatures. Grimm's agency is situated in the human realm, but just adjacent to the humans' Earthbound city is Kingdom, a realm in which people with magical talents make their homes. Kingdom has three levels: Upper Kingdom, for humans who are members of royalty and the nobility; Middle Kingdom, for elves, dwarfs, and other less humanoid creatures; and Lower Kingdom, for the more monstrous and evil creatures. Only people with magic can enter Kingdom. Since Marissa has no magic, she can enter Kingdom only because she wears one of Grimm's magical bracelets and carries a vial of Glitter on a chain around her neck. A few fairy-tale creatures live in the mortal realm, like the werewolves, who live in New Jersey. 

     If you have ever read any fairy tales, you won't have any trouble understanding this world. The author's take on princes and princesses is hilarious and not in a very complimentary way. All of the members of royalty are pompous, over-bearing twits who are accustomed to getting their own way, and they don't react well when their wishes are foiled by Grimm and his agents. If you are familiar with the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, you know that they are not at all like the Disney movies—in fact, some of them are kind of scary. Those original fairy tales were meant to teach life lessonsto scare children into being goodso Nelson includes some loathsome villains for the heroine to defeat. 

     Nelson has a quirky sense of humor, and the book is full of one-liners and snide asides that kept me constantly chuckling. The heroine is a feisty, smart, take-no-prisoners kind of girl whose snarky perspective is a major asset to the story. Nelson handles Marissa's tricky first-person voice perfectly, with absolutely no awkwardness whatsoever. This is not broad, slapstick humor; rather, it is wry, dry, witty drollery that turns up even in some of the more dangerous scenes. 

     Here's an interchange between Marissa and Grimm: 
      "I can read lips in sixteen languages, you know," said Grimm.
       I looked through the window. "Fifteen. Pig Latin is not a language."
      "Tell that to the Three Little Pigs." (p. 97)

     Click HERE to go to the Grimm Agency's web page where you can learn all about how to purchase a wish and complete an aptitude test to see if you qualify to be a member of Grimm's team.

                     NOVEL 1:  Free Agent                     
     In an on-line interview, Nelson provides a Twitter-esque summary of the plot: "In modern day New York, where wishes are bought and sold, a young woman enslaved to the Fairy Godfather fights for her happily ever after." The center of the plot of this opening novel is Marissa's assignment to help Grimm bring together a prince and a princess for their HEA. Arianna (Ari), the princess, is a plump young woman with no fashion sense who has paid plenty of Glitter (magical currency) to Grimm to find her a prince so that she can escape from her evil step-mother. Marissa's job is to meet the prince, have two dates with him during which she gets him to fall for her, and then have a third and final date during which she heartlessly dumps him. At the moment of the dumping, Ari will just happen to be walking byhappy to lend a royal shoulder to cry on. At least that's how the process has worked many times before. This time, however, everything goes wrong. First, Marissa picks up Liam, who is not a prince at all, but no one realizes the mistake until way too late. By that time, Marissa has allowed herself to fall for Liam and is miserable after she breaks his heart. Then, when Grimm tries to correct matters with the right prince, more bad things happen, most of them involving Marissa.

     Eventually, Marissa and Grimm learn that outside forces are involved in the failure of this assignment, but it takes them most of the book to figure out exactly what's going on. Meanwhile, Marissa has to fulfill other assignments, including one that involves heading to New Jersey to exchange a truckload of pigs for a truckload of human children, only to find a fae child mixed in with the humans. Marissa saves the child's life, and his mother rewards her with a double blessing. Unfortunately a fae blessing can also be a curse, so Marissa's life gets even more complicated. 

     Several running jokes are woven through the story. One involves Marissa's hostile relationship with the gnomes that staff Kingdom's post office. They refuse to deliver any packages to her apartment because she accidentally ran over one of their cousins one dark night while he was curled up in one of NYC's enormous potholes. Another story thread deals with an equally hostile relationship between Marissa and the wolves out in Jersey. She loves to agitate them, so when she is assigned to go out there on a pick-up run, she wears a red, hooded outfit (you know, "Little Red…."), which drives the wolves absolutely nuts.

     Marissa is a marvelous heroine. No matter how bad things get, she never ever gives up, even when she is in way over her headwhich she usually is, because she is a non-magical woman living in a fairy-tale world. Each and every day, Marissa copes with whatever comes her way in her own make-it-up-as-you-go-along mannerand believe me, lots of really bad stuff comes her way. (Although they live in entirely different worlds, Marissa reminds me of Angel Crawford in Diana Rowland's WHITE TRASH ZOMBIE series because both characters exhibit the same tough resiliency and prickly facade.) By the end of the book, Marissa has dealt with an evil step-mother, a malevolent Fairy Godmother, a slime-bag Prince, a fire-breathing dragon, untold numbers of ferocious werewolves, and a heavy dose of the truth about her parents' motives for selling her off to Grimm. Marissa and Grimm also have some major upheavals in their relationship. In the end, Marissa learns that she can be deeply hurt by the fulfillment of her deepest desires and that seemingly mundane choices can result in wildly unpredictable consequences. Don't worry, though, this is not by any means a depressing book. Every dark moment is perfectly balanced by a hilariously snarky one.

     This novel is a wonderful foundation for the new seriesfunny and tragic at the same time. This is Nelson's debut print novel, and he proves himself to be an extremely talented storyteller, seasoning every scene with just enough adventure, drama, suspense, and humor. The modern-day fair-tale mythology is fresh and inventivea welcome respite from fang-flashing vampires, vicious demons, and heroines in black leather bustiers. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Free Agent.

     Here's the opening sentence for book 2, due in February 2015: "In my defense, I didn't mean to start the Apocalypse." This one is already on my order list!

                     NOVELLA 1.5:  "Soul Ink"                    
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: As the right hand woman at the Fairy Godfather’s Grimm Agency, Marissa Locks has a grip on all things magical. If only she could get control of her own not-so-charmed life. 

     For most people, waking up after a night of partying next to a dragon, sporting a tattoo with a mind of its own, would be a new low. For Marissa, only the tattoo is new—and, unfortunately, it’s not the weirdest part of her day. The Agency has been called in to stop a string of messy murders, a problem that’s turning into a disaster of biblical proportions, and Marissa’s been assigned to the case. 

     One of the archangels from Paradisia is attempting to switch teams, and he’s willing to use as many souls as it takes to pay his way. With Grimm contractually bound to clean up the chaos, Marissa must find a way to keep the former cherub from completing his rampage. But between fighting an angel gone bad and battling the magical compulsions of her new Fae tattoo, Marissa’s definitely facing the worst hangover in history. Click HERE and then click on the cover art to read an excerpt on the "Soul Ink" page. 

                      NOVEL 2:  Armageddon Rules                     
Introduction: Two years have passed since Marissa became Grimm's partner at the Agency and since she and Liam, her dragon-shifting boyfriend, got together. Marissa and Ari are now BFFs, and Ari is taking magic lessons from Grimm in an attempt to control the wild magic that was set loose within her in the opening novel. In the very first sentence, Marissa gives us an "I didn't mean to…" apology for starting the apocalypse, so we know in advance that deep trouble lies ahead. In the early chapters, though, all we get are lots of incidental scenes that play up the eccentricities of Marissa's worldvarious weird creatures doing various strange things, all of which Marissa and her team must deal with.

Note to the author: In a world based on characters from myths and fairy tales, the reader already expects lots of weirdness, so you don't need to pad the book by inserting lots of unnecessary extra bits that have absolutely no connection with the overall plot. The heavy sprinkling of disjointed, meaningless (and not very funny) scenes describing Marissa's waiting room clients definitely weakens the early chapters. We get it. This is a wild and crazy world, but please try to keep the weirdness closely connected to the plot. 

The Plot: The story draws on events that took place during the first novel, so if you haven't read that book, you might want to do so before reading this one. The primary villain is Queen Mihail, mother of the prince whom Marissa killed two years ago (in book 1). Mihail vowed to get revenge against Marissa and Ari, and in this book she sets in motion a plan that involves attempted assassinations, demon contracts, and an apocalypse like none you ever imagined. As Marissa and Ari fight off various bad guys, they are aided by Mikey, Grimm's werewolf intern, and Beth, a pierced and tattooed piper who specializes in poodles (although her kazoo "music" can also glamour other animals and even humans). Marissa is on her own through much of the story because Grimm disappears without a trace (more about that later in this review). Liam is out of the country on a vampire protection assignment, and Ari goes into one of those infamous princess comas (like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White).

New Characters: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Maloden (a sly demon who traps Marissa into a contract); Wyatt Pendlebrook (Ari's new boyfriend) and his mother (big surprise for Marissa here); Nickolas Scratch (aka the Devil); and Eli (an angel who owns a junkyard because his "job" is to clean up after people).

Important Revelations: Ari and Marissa learn the true identity of Wyatt and his mom. Ari and Marissa discover that Grimm has lied to both of them about important aspects of their lives. More information about the Black Queen's family history is revealed.

Most Interesting Characters: Each of the Four Horsemen (Pestilence, War, Famine, Death) is presented as a fully drawn, easy-going character with a dry sense of humor. Marissa's scenes with them are the most entertaining in the book. In particular, Famine's physical and life-style metamorphosis is unexpected and very funny. Their gifts to Marissa will certainly be integral to future plot lines.

Least Interesting Character: Wyatta prim and prissy, germophobic, politically correct mommy's boy. Here's an example of his wussiness: While Marissa and Wyatt are being pursued by a horde of demons, Marissa tries to explain how to shoot a gun. She says, "Pull the trigger. Like Cowboys and Indians." Wyatt responds, "Native American history is not a game." Wyatt carries a backpack full of anti-bacterial wipes and brand-new toothbrushes so that he can wipe/scrub down every time he touches another person (including his girlfriend). This gets old very quickly. Every time he shows up in a scene, it takes a downward slide.

Funniest Bits: Grimm debunks vampire myths. For example, a stake through the heart won't kill a vampire, but a steak in the mouth will turn him to ash. "Today's vampires are more enlightened. More evolved They are vegans. If they consume meat products, the fire of their own hypocrisy burns them to a crisp." Also, the first two plagues that Marissa sets on the world are completely unpredictable and quite funny, especially the first one. And one more amusing bit: Marissa's choice of "mounts" for the horsemen. 
How to Play a Kazoo

Least Funny Bit: Beth, her kazoo, and the monstrous poodles. 

Most Blatant Continuity Error: On page 88, Marissa can't call for help because her cell phone was stolen, but on page 89 (in the very same scene), she uses her cell phone to call Grimm. 

Most Bogus Element: Grimm's "Echo" self, who is supposed to be a "recording of the Fairy Godfather's thoughts during the recording process [two years ago]…a complete record of [his] thoughts" at the moment of the recording. So that would mean that Echo should work kind of like a sentient database, pulling together facts and details to provide Marissa with information that is limited to that which was recorded in a single transference two years ago. In point of fact, Echo is a deus ex machina who behaves and spouts information exactly like Grimm. Although the author makes a big point of getting rid of Grimm, he actually gives us two identical Grimms. So, don't be fooled into thinking that Marissa doesn't have Grimm's support. 

Conclusions: All in all, this book isn't nearly as entertaining as the first oneoften the case in new series. I think that's because the author puts much more time and effort into the first book, and then is forced into a tight time line for writing the succeeding books. There are a few funny scenes and dramatic moments, but there are also a slew of failed attempts at humor and drama that do nothing but annoy the reader and slow down the action. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Armageddon Rules.

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