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Friday, July 31, 2015


Author:  Christina Henry  
Plot Type:  Dark Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          Alice (8/2015)
          Red Queen (7/2016)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 7/17/2016 to include a review of Red Queen, the second novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.

                         NOVEL 2:  Red Queen                         
     The author of Alice takes readers back down the rabbit hole to a dark, twisted, and fascinating world based on the works of Lewis Carroll. 

     The land outside of the Old City was supposed to be green, lush, hopeful. A place where Alice could finally rest, no longer the plaything of the Rabbit, the pawn of Cheshire, or the prey of the Jabberwocky. But the verdant fields are nothing but ash—and hope is nowhere to be found. 

     Still, Alice and Hatcher are on a mission to find his daughter, a quest they will not forsake even as it takes them deep into the clutches of the mad White Queen and her goblin or into the realm of the twisted and cruel Black King. 

     The pieces are set and the game has already begun. Each move brings Alice closer to her destiny. But, to win, she will need to harness her new-found abilities and ally herself with someone even more powerful—the mysterious and vengeful Red Queen.

     At the end of Alice, the heroine and her companion (and true love), Hatcher, had turned their backs on the murder and mayhem of the City and were entering a tunnel, headed East to find Hatcher's daughter, Jenny. Many years ago, when Jenny was taken from him, Hatcher fought hard against the kidnappers, but went mad when he lost the battle…and his daughter. Although they expect to find lush, green land at the end of the tunnel, instead they find themselves in a lifeless, ash-covered wasteland. To prevent starvation, Alice experiments with using her magic and is finally able to conjure up two tiny, greasy meat pies and four dried-up apples, but she can't help but wish that she could find someone to teach her about how to make her magic more reliable and more effective.

     Eventually, they come to a village that has fresh food, open shops, a lovely fountain…but no people. After taking food and supplies from the shops, the two leave gold coins in payment and spend the night bedded down next to the fountain. During the night, both dream of three giant shadowy figures who lament that they can't eat Alice and Hatcher because, "they haven't broken the rules…not a single one." The dark giants also discuss the lack of travelers ("That's his doing isn't it? Burning up everything in sight.") and a scary woman ("There are rules, and we must follow them. Unless you want her to get angry.")

     Next on the landscape is an enchanted forest, where Alice and Hatcher become separated, leaving Alice on her own until nearly the end of the book. She soon gains a frenemyPen, one of the giants (a man who was bespelled into his giant form after he and his brothers angered the White Queen).

     At this point, Alice has to figure out a number of puzzles: Who set up the enchanted village? Why is a horrible goblin trying to catch her in the enchanted forest? What happened to Hatcher and how can she get him back?

     At the base of the White Queen's mountain, Alice finds a normal, non-enchanted village that is facing an ongoing problem. Four times a year, the White Queen demands the sacrifice of a village child, and the next sacrifice is due in three days. Of course, Alice sees this as an opportunity to get to the White Queen's icy castle at the top of the mountain, so she volunteers to be the sacrifice.

     Meanwhile, Alice intermittently hears two voices in her head. One is the voice of the Jabberwocky, who keeps telling her to remember him, and the other is the sarcastic voice of Cheshire. Alice is trying her best to forget the Jabberwocky, although she is still carrying the little jar that contains the purple butterfly that he turned into at the end of their last confrontation. As for Cheshire, even though he can be overbearing, and even though she thought that she had broken the connection between them, she sometimes welcomes his advice because he is almost always right.

     Alice learns a number of life lessons as she travels across the ashy plain, the enchanted forest, and the ice-covered mountainside:
1. She learns to temper her natural curiosity and use extreme caution because things in the White Queen's kingdom are never as they seem.
2. She figures out the difference between reality and illusion.
3. She discovers what the rules are in this world so that she can avoid breaking them. Then, she has to learn to play by her own rules, not the Queen's.
4. She learns that stolen magic corrupts, weakens, and eventually kills the thief who takes it from another. 
5. She learns that she has to believe in her own magic with all her heart in order to make it work.
6. She learns to accept Hatcher's violent nature. "Hatcher was no wolf in an innocent's clothing. He was a wolf in a man's form, a killer forced to pretend that he was civilized."
     During Alice's travels, she spends a lot of time stumbling through dark tunnels and entering rooms with multiple, closed doors. All she really wants is "a green valley and a field of wildflowers and a little white cottage by a blue lake," where she and Hatcher can live happily ever after, but in order to achieve her dream life, she must defeat the White Queen, rescue the children of the village, and save Hatcher. Most of all, she must not succumb to the lure of taking someone else's magical power; she must maintain her "Alice-ness" and not become a vessel for someone else's magic.

     The supporting characters are well-developed, with interesting backstories andespecially in the case of the giantsdialogue that is filled with noir humor. Hatcher disappears into the enchanted forest very early in the book, just after he murmurs, "The night is alive, Alice…And so am I." From that point on, Alice is really the star of the show, and she steps right up to keep herself and the innocents she meets safe from danger. No one has to rescue Alice; she rescues herself. The Alice-Hatcher relationship deepens in this book and the two eventually express mutual love. My favorite line is this one that comes near the end of the book: "His eyes were…a little mad and much sadder than before, and also eyes that loved her. A great relief washed over her then, because Alice was a little mad and much sadder than before and she loved him."

     The storyline has some major twists and turns, particularly towards the end when assumptions you might make turn out to be completely false. This is great story-telling in actiona real treat for the reader. At one point early on, Hatcher mourns, "The world gobbles us and chews us and swallows us…I think happy endings must be accidents." But the HEA ending to this story isn't an accident. It's the result of a skilled author's creation of a smart, plucky heroine who is determined to make the world a better place for everyone she encounters (with the exception of the villains, of course).

     The primary adjective I would use to describe this book (and series) is darkvery dark. As was true in the first novel, a number of characters do not survive their trials and tribulations, but their deaths are not described in gory detail as they were in the first book. In fact, this book does not have nearly as many brutally traumatic scenes as the first book had. This is more of a scary, suspenseful journey with a scattering of Big Bads to spice things up. The plot moves from violent episodes to heart-wrenching emotional scenes and back again, always twisting and turning and changing up the pace. It is a wonderful sequel to Alice.

     Click HERE to go to Red Queen's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Red Queen is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

     The first book is set in a divided city with a 19th century ambiance. The elegant and refined New City is home to the rich, educated upper classes, while the filthy and decaying Old City harbors the illiterate, hardscrabble poor, who live in neighborhoods ruled by cruel bosses: "The Old City seemed to have no beginning and no end, a circling maze of stairways and narrow alleys connecting buildings that had been patched and rebuilt on top of crumbling ruins for centuries. There was nothing gleaming and new there, not even the children, who seemed to be birthed with haunted eyes." (Alice, chapter 2)

     The only people from the New City who visit the Old City are men in search of sexual pleasure, and for that reason, the most prevalent "industry" in the Old City is the slave trade of women and young girls, who are kidnapped from their family homes and locked up in brothels. Generally, their families are murdered during the kidnappings.

Sir John Tenniel's
1866 Cheshire Cat
     Henry uses Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) as a framework for her mythology, taking the main characters and their general characteristics and twisting them to suit her darker needs as she offers a macabre mutation of Alice's adventures. Here is an example of one of those character twists, as Alice meets Cheshire for the first time: "A man [was] standing near the center table and grinning an oversized grin...He was small and neat…His head…was covered all over with golden brown hair carefully curled in ringlets. Cheshire's grin widened…Alice decided she didn't like that grin. it wasn't happy. It was more like a predatory animal baring its teeth." (Alice, chapter 7) 

     On Henry's Facebook page she warns, "This is not Wonderland," and you should heed her words. Alice is a suspense-filled, violent tale about greedy, misogynistic men, the women they mistreat, a heroine who decides that she will do her best to rescue the innocent and punish the guilty, and a mad hero who will lay his life on the line for her. 

                         NOVEL 1:  Alice                       
     In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

     In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood… 

     Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago. 

     Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful. And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice. 

     In a poem in Through the Looking Glass, Carroll warns, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!" And that is the crux of the plot of this novel, with the Jabberwock as the primary villain along with several lesser, but still dangerous, bad guys. In the days leading up to the asylum fire, Alice's friend, Hatcher (in the neighboring room), keeps warning Alice that the Jabberwocka mysterious dark and hungry monsteris coming and that no one is safe: "His mouth will open wide and we will all fall in, fall in and be devoured." (chapter 2) Unfortunately, when they escape from the fiery inferno, the horrific Jabberwock also escapes and soon begins wreaking havoc in the Old City, as he/it desperately searches for...something. Hatcher claims that only a magician can dispatch the Jabberwock, but Alice tells him, "All the Magicians are gone. They were driven out or killed centuries ago, during the Purge." (chapter 1) But is that true? Maybe not.

     Hatcher and Alice make their way to his grandmother's house in the Old City, where Grandma Bess announces that she has had a vision that Alice and her grandson are the only people who can kill the Jabberwock. From that point on, the pair wanders the dangerous streets and alleys of the Old City, meeting up with various characters who trick them, attack them, betray them, and sometimes try to kill them—human characters who are called Dormouse, Cheshire, Caterpillar, Walrus, Carpenter, Rabbit, and (of course) the Jabberwock himself.

     Both Alice and Hatcher have tragic histories, but neither can remember the most traumatic events of their past, except in unconnected bits and pieces. Alice has been locked up for 10 years, since she was sixteen and rescued herself from a kidnapper, after which she babbled on about a rabbit and a tea party until her family consigned her to the asylum. Hatcher (aka Nicholas Carbey) is ten years older than Alice. He earned his nickname from a violent incident in which he killed a lot of people with his axebut he can't remember why he did it. Both Alice and Hatcher can remember what came before and after these violent events in their pasts, but they can't remember exactly what happened to them that caused them to go mad. As the plot advances, the two begin to retrieve their memories as they learn new information about themselves from the various villainous characters they meet on their quest to locate the Jabberwock's missing artifact. In Alice's case, she also begins to realize that her family heritage has bequeathed her some unexpected powers. As Alice becomes more confident, her snark level rises, resulting in some snappy dialogue.

     The highlight of the story is the relationship that develops between Alice and the mad Hatcher, who sometimes is caught up in rages that turn him into a raging, cold-blooded killer. As they depend upon one another for survival, Alice realizes that Hatcher truly cares for her when he promises that he will kill her and then himself if there is no other way to avoid capture: "From another man this might be terrifying, that he would so blithely consider murdering his companion. but she understood that from Hatcher this was tantamount to an offer of marriage. This was what he could do for her, how he showed he cared." (Chapter 3)

     Henry has done a great job interweaving significant characters and plot points from Carroll's story into her all-new and much darker fantasy. Be aware, though, that Alice is quite violent, particularly in the way that women are brutalized. No young girl is safe on the streets of the Old City because the bosses' slave traders are always on the lookout for new candidates for their oh-so-profitable brothels.

     Most of the story lines are resolved by the end of the book, as Alice and Hatcher work their way through the city conquering villain after villain, but new information gleaned from various contacts ensures that there will probably be a sequel. (Alice hasn't yet met up with the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Knave of Hearts, or the Mock Turtle.) 

     If you are searching for a fresh, fast-paced, action-packed fantasy, you'll probably enjoy this book, particularly if you like your fantasies on the dark side.

     RT Book Reviews awarded Alice 4 1/2 stars and made it a Top Pick. Click HERE to read the RT review. Click HERE to preview the first two chapters.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Alice is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley
 in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Three Slices": Stories by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne, & Chuck Wendig

Title:  Three Slices (anthologye-book or audio)
Authors:  Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne, Chuck Wendig
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher:  Amazon Digital Services

    As Kevin Hearne explains in the book's "Author's Notes," this is "the world's first tyromancy-themed anthology." Each of the three novellas features a scene in which "somebody along the way predicts the future via the coagulation of cheese." Hearne's story takes place about a week after the events of Shattered, book 7 of the IRON DRUID CHRONICLES. Click HERE to read my reviews of that series. 

     When Hearne invited Delilah S. Dawson to join in the fun, she followed her life philosophy: "Always say yes to cheese." She contributes her first BLUD story written from a man's perspective. Dawson's story is meant to stand alone, and she suggests that it can be an introduction to the "dark, dangerous, whimsical world of Sang, where tyromancy fits in perfectly." This is a prequel story for the series. Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in Dawson's BLUD SERIES.

     Chuck Wendig figured that "All the cool kids are doing it," and besides, he wanted to get "a slice (get it"? Slice?) of that sweet, sweet cheese-reader money." His story is part of his MIRIAM BLACK SERIES, coming just before Thunderbird (which is due in April 2016). Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in that series.

     The e-book features beautiful illustrations by Galen Dara, some of which I have included in this review.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Three Slices at the book's page, where you can click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

       Kevin Hearne's "A Prelude to War" (IRON DRUID CHRONICLES 7.5)     
confronts Loki
     Hearne alternates between two story lines: one from Atticus' perspective and one from Granuaile's perspective. As the story opens, Atticus and Oberon are on a trek to Ethiopia to ask a favor from a long-time ally named Mekera, who is a diviner who predicts future events through tyromancy. Over time, Mekera has made extremely accurate predictions for Atticus in return for his assistance in setting up her isolated cave home in the wilds of Ethiopia. What Atticus doesn't know is that Mekera has not always been a loyal friend to him. This story line ends with Atticus and Oberon heading for Canada, with the vampire Werner Drasche in hot pursuit. It's a cliff-hanger that will be continued in Staked—due in January 2016. 

     Meanwhile, Granuaile wants to get rid of the rune Loki burned into her arm in Shattered, so she decides to request assistance from Odin. The best scene in the story is the suspense-filled confrontation between Granuaile and Loki in which Loki gets much more than he bargained for when Granuaile pulls out all the weapons in her armory and aims them directly at his most vulnerable spots. Again, the ending of this story line is unresolved, with more to come in Staked.

     The novella has lots of humorous dialogue between Atticus and Oberon (who loves cheese, by the way). Granuaile's best line comes when she enters Asgard for the first time and tries to suppress her excitement: "I firmly smoosh my desire to take a selfie in Asgard, because I know how deeply uncool that would be." Unfortunately, it falls to Hearne to explain just what tyromancy is, so he has to slow down the pace for a page or two while he explains the process to Oberon while Mekera is up to her elbows in hartebeest rennet and curdled milk. 

     Delilah S. Dawson's "Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys" (BLUD SERIES)     

Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2  

Merissa and her
blud mare
     This is an origin story for Dawson's BLUD series, so, naturally, it features Criminy Stain as the first-person narrator. As the story opens, Criminy is forced to run away from his job as a magician in Barnum's Traveling Circus through no fault of his own. When he first comes upon Merissa, a beautiful carnivallero who trains and rides blud mares, in the wilds of the countryside, he (at first) believes that he has found his true love. The story follows Criminy as he meets the other carnivalleros in Merissa's caravan and plots to take ownership of the caravan for himself. As part of the tyromancy story line, we see how Criminy discovers the locket that is key to the plot of the first BLUD novel, Wicked As They Come

     This terrific little story is a delight to read because Criminy is always a such a smart, sly, spellbinding character. In one memorable scene, he makes friends with a daimon by teaching him to hammer a nail into his own eye. "My name is Criminy Stain," he says to the daimon. "And I might be strange, but that's just part of my charm." Although he is sometimes sidetracked by lustful thoughts, he keeps his ultimate goal front and center in his mindto own his own very successful circus: Criminy's Captivating Caravan. As Criminy tells his tale in his snarky manner, with an underlying viciousness that causes the reader to shudder now and again, we can't help but root for him to win his heart's desire even if he does have to resort to a bit of murder and mayhem along the way. 

     This story serves as a great introduction to the BLUD series, but will also be enjoyed by those who have already read the BLUD novels and can't get enough of Criminy.

        Chuck Wendig's "Interlude: Swallow" (MIRIAM BLACK SERIES)          
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality2-3; Humor (Dark)—2  

     Wendig tells this story in his usual flashback style, beginning in the present and then hopscotching back and forth between the events of the previous seven days and the current events. Miriam is on her own in this tale, which is when she is at her dark and existential best.

     As the story opens, Miriam wakes up in the dark in a strange place with a pounding headache and a tranquilizer dart wound in her neck. All she can remember is that she is searching for Mary Stitch, the woman who can supposedly cure her of the curse of visualizing other people's death scenes. Before she can figure out who kidnapped and drugged her, Wendig zaps us back to the previous week, when Miriam became acquainted with a local man named John Lucas in a bar.

     Miriam has come to this small Colorado town in response to a message from Madam Safira Starshine, the local fortune teller, who is also a tyromancer. In Miriam's world, you can expect that the divinations will involve a massacre as well as moldy cheese. Miriam describes the odor as "Musky, off, pungent as the congealed sweat on a dead man's scrotum."

     This story will be difficult to comprehend completely if you haven't read the previous MIRIAM BLACK novels because several characters from those novels (particularly Louis) turn up in various hallucinatory forms, and because the link between Miriam and the primary villain is a near-drowning episode that took place in one of those novels. (To give you an idea of the scope of these references, here is one of Miriam's fevered flashbacks: "Florida…Ashley Gaynes. Her mother. Not to mention the thing with Louis. That phone call…"

     "Interlude: Swallow" overflows with Miriam's colorful, cynical narration: For example, after she hurts John's feelings by calling him old, she muses that "it's hilarious how men act so tough like they're all steel rebar and beef jerky. In reality, men are soufflés: they puff up big but shrink fast at the slightest bump, shudder, or temperature dip." And here is a bit from a scene in which Miriam responds to being attacked: "On a resume, one of Miriam's talents would be seizes opportunities. Which she does now, launching herself up like a starving housecoat. Claws out. Teeth bared."

     Wendig has packed a complex plot into a few pages, and it contains several sharp twists and turns, so pay attention to the details. Any fan of MIRIAM BLACK will enjoy this brief jaunt in her company.

NOTE: In addition to the tyromancy link among the three stories, characters in two of the stories (Dawson's and Wendig's) use the old saying "Not my circus, not my monkeys" (a Polish idiom meaning "not my problem"Nie mój cyrk, nie moue malpy.)