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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lori Handeland: SISTERS OF THE CRAFT TRILOGY

Author:  Lori Handeland  
Series:  SISTERS OF THE CRAFT TRILOGY
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—2-3   
Publisher and Titles:  St. Martin's
          In the Air Tonight (6/2/15)
          Heat of the Moment (6/30/15)
          Smoke on the Water (8/4/15) (FINAL)

This series has been published over a three-month period this summer. This post begins with an overview of the series world-building, followed by the publisher's blurb and my review of each novel, beginning with the first. 

                     WORLD-BUILDING                     
     Four hundred years ago in Scotland, Henry and Prudence Taggart were burned at the stake because they were accused of witchcraft. More specifically, Roland McHugh, King James's chief witch hunter accused Prudence, a midwife, of murdering his wife and child during childbirth in order to gain the power she needed to deliver her own triplet daughters. Back in those days, multiple births were always suspect, and having lost his wife and child, McHugh needs a scapegoat. Here, he questions Pru: "More than one soul in a womb is Satan's work….How many lives did you sacrifice so your devil's spawn might be born." (Click HERE for more information about witchcraft in England during this period.) Prudence and Henry go to their deaths, but when the flames flare up, their dead bodies and their still-alive triplet daughters all disappear.

     Years later as McHugh dies of the plague, he is still cursing the Taggarts and vowing to track down and kill the three girls. What McHugh doesn't know—at least at that point in time—is that Henry and Pru used their witchy powers to send their girls to safety in the far distant future. Unfortunately, the 21st century isn't quite as safe as the Taggarts thought it would be.

     In each book, one sister—now in her twenties—learns the secret of her past, meets her soul mate, and has a run-in with a (fictional) cult of witch hunters called the Venatores Mali, or Hunters of Evil.

                   NOVEL 1:  In the Air Tonight                     
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     Four centuries ago, in a small Scottish village, three baby girls escaped the wrath of a witch hunter. Today, one young woman will learn about her secret history, her heart's destiny, and the sisters she never knew she had...


     With her blue-black hair and dark eyes, Raye Larsen has never fit in with the Scandinavian community of New Bergin, Wisconsin. Being adopted is part of the reason she feels like an outsider, but what really sets Raye apart is her ability to see dead people. Everywhere. She's learned to keep her visions to herself...until she stumbles onto the ghost of a murder victim who needs Raye's help. 

     Enter Bobby Doucet, a distractingly handsome homicide detective who has been tracking a killer all the way from New Orleans. Could this be the break in his case he's been looking for all along? Meanwhile, the deeper Raye gets involved with the case—and with Bobby—the closer she comes to unlocking the mystery of her own origins. What she discovers about herself could destroy everything she knows...and everyone she loves. Is finding the truth worth the risk? Click HERE to read an excerpt from In the Air Tonight.

MY REVIEW:
     Raye is a kindergarten teacher who is happy in her job. She has always felt out of place in New Bergin—a dark-haired, dark-eyed only child (adopted) in a town filled with large families headed by blond, blue-eyed parents with lots of blond, blue-eyed children. Raye was found abandoned in a ditch when she was an infant, so she has no idea who her parents are or why they left her. Her adoptive mother has been dead for several years, and her adoptive father has never trusted Raye's strangeness. Ever since she can remember, Raye has been able to see and communicate with ghosts. When she was a child, her parents caught her having conversations with—apparently—no one, and at one point, her father even suggested that perhaps they should return her to the social workers.

     The plot kicks off when a woman's burned and mutilated body is found on a city sidewalk in New Bergin. When Raye walks past the scene on her way to work, the woman's ghost grabs Raye's arm, leaving a bruised hand print, and exclaims, "He will burn us all" before disappearing in a puff of smoke and flame. Adding to the mystery is the fact that Raye has been seeing a black wolf and the ghost of a man dressed in Puritan-style clothing in and near her apartment. The pair has been stalking her ever since she can remember, but they have always been silent. Now, the man begins to talk to her, warning of dangerous times ahead and explaining the complicated history of their connected pasts. Then, one dark night, a huge man with a meat cleaver sneaks into her apartment and tries to kill her. When she runs out into the street for help, she stops a car driven by a New Orleans detective who has just arrived in town to investigate the woman's death because he believes that the perpetrator is a serial killer who has been active in New Orleans.

     Bobby Doucet comes from a long line of Creoles—a mixture of French, Spanish, and a little bit of Haitian. He has lived in New Orleans all his life and has never seen any place like New Bergin—which he nicknames Podunk. Everything here is strange to him: the weird Scandinavian food, the provincial townsfolk who view him as an exotic creature, the fact that New Bergin does not have a hotel, and the fact that everyone in town knows everyone else's business. When Bobby meets Raye in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, he wonders just what he is in for.

     Naturally enough, the two are immediately attracted to one another, and their romance blossoms relatively quickly. But both of them have deep, dark secrets, and those secrets complicate their relationship. Raye has to hide her ghost-talking so that Bobby won't think she is crazy, and Bobby, who despises all things paranormal, is riddled with guilt over the death of his daughter, whose ghost is shadowing him and having sad conversations with Raye. She explains to Raye that even though Bobby can't see ghosts, he is able to feel them: "He refuses to acknowledge anything that hints at the mystical, but he has magic in his blood."

     Meanwhile, the murder investigation is also complicated. After Bobby kills a suspect who is attempting to murder Raye, a second murderer takes the life of an eccentric local woman. Things really get complicated when an FBI agent suggests that the murder cases definitely involve witchcraft. It is at this point that Handeland introduces some familiar characters from her NIGHTCREATURE series into the story: FBI agent Nic Franklin from Dark Moon (book 3) and Voodoo Priestess Cassandra from Midnight Moon (book 5). (Click HERE to read my review of the NIGHTCREATURE series.)

     This is a typical paranormal romance with star-crossed lovers who fall in love while solving a supernatural mystery—in this case some supernatural murders. It will be interesting to see how far Handeland will go with her involvement of the NIGHTCREATURE world in this new series. Handeland has always been a good story teller, and in this novel she has created an interesting premise; a likable pair of lovers; a spooky, action-filled plot; and a series story arc that promises a family reunion that will include both dead and living relatives. You'll notice that I gave this series a 2-3 rating for humor. That humor comes mostly in the dialogue, which has many sly and snarky wisecracks from Raye, Bobby, and some of the secondary characters, particularly the police chief, the coroner, and Bobby's partner back in New Orleans. 

     Since all three books will be published this summer, this is your chance to read a well-crafted paranormal romance trilogy without having to wait a year or more between books—a rare occurrence indeed.

     One last thing: At one point, Raye treats Bobby's bruises with an ointment made from Arnica. Since I was unfamiliar with Arnica, I googled it, and you can click HERE to read what I found. (Scroll down to the "Homeopathy" section of the article.)

                     NOVEL 2:  Heat of the Moment                     
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     A spell that tore three sisters apart is broken four hundred years later, when the magic in their blood reunites them. Now, one of them will discover her gift—and reignite a love long thought lost...


    Flame-haired Becca Carstairs was born to be a veterinarian. Since childhood, her affinity for animals has been special, and her healing touch nothing short of magic. But only Becca knows the truth—that she alone can hear the creatures' voices. She's always trusted her sixth sense...until a string of missing pets, an attempted murder, and a face from her past converge into one explosive mystery, with her at its center. 

     Is haunted Owen McAllister, the boy who broke her heart ten years ago, related to the sinister crimes that have peaceful Three Harbors, Wisconsin, on its guard? Or is his reappearance part of the answer to questions that have troubled her all her life? As Becca delves into her strange heritage, she'll have to fight for her life...and the man she will always love. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Heat of the Moment.

MY REVIEW: 
     When the police chief of Three Harbors, Wisconsin, asks for Dr. Becca Carstairs' assistance in solving a series of disappearances of local petsall black in colorshe doesn't know what to think. Then, she stumbles on the burned and mutilated bodies of those animals in the ramshackle house in which her ex-lover once lived. Even more shocking: Owen McAllister has returned home, recovering from crippling injuries suffered while serving in Afghanistan and accompanied by his military service dog, Reggie. The two parted ten years ago under heartbreaking circumstances, but they have continued to love one another through all those long years.

     As usual, there are two blended story lines: the romance and a murder mystery. The murderer first attempt to kill Becca, but is driven off by the same green-eyed black wolf we met in the first novel. The mystery is complicated by the presence of Owen's mentally challenged mother, who was always considered by the locals as a witch because of her odd behavior and her heavy use of drugs. As bodies accumulate and the murderer remains at large, the Jäger-Sucher team from the NIGHTCREATURE series (Cassandra, Edward, and Nic) shows up along with Raye and Bobby to assist in the suspenseful and violent climax. Even though I could predict the identity of at least one of the villains, another one took me completely by surprise. 

     Both the action plot and the romance are well developed and interesting. Becca has only one TSTL moment (but unfortunately it's a big one), and Owen is one of Handeland's most complex heroes yet. He grew up as the son of the town's crazy, scary witch, with Becca being his only friend. When their teenage romance was thwarted, Owen had to leave Becca behind, which he has regretted ever since. Becca, like Raye, always felt like she didn't really belong. She has always been able to converse with animals, but had to hide that talent because it upset her parents. People in town always teased her about her bright red hair and told her that she must be adopted (although her parents always assured her that she was their natural child). "Kids noticed how different I was from every other Carstairs on the planet, which led to a lifetime of comments about the 'stork getting it wrong,' and other oh-so-amusing jibes." When Raye finally comes to town tells Becca the truth about her genetic heritage, it's almost too much for her to bear.

     This is a terrific story that is a solid addition to this trilogy. Even though Handeland reviews the mythology, I recommend that you read Heat of the Moment first, just to keep the action chronologically correct. I always enjoy Handeland's books because she creates complex characters and suspense-filled plots. The addition of Reggie, Owen's extremely intelligent and charismatic dog, adds even more depth because Reggie turns out to be a very important supporting character. If you are looking for an entertaining new paranormal romance series that is available in its entirety right now, this is the one for you. 

     The final novel will introduce the third sister and her soul mate and resolve the triplets' conflict with the evil Roland McHugh.

                    NOVEL 3:  Smoke on the Water                     
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     Reunited after four hundred years, three sisters join together to vanquish the power that tore them apart...and embrace the sorcery that is their birthright.

     Abandoned as an infant, Willow Black spent her childhood in foster care, the object of whispers and pity...and rumors about being certifiably crazy. Telling your young friends that you can foresee the future—and summon the rain—is a surefire way to end up in the psychiatric ward. But when Dr. Sebastian Frasier arrives at the facility, Willow's whole life takes a turn. 

     Sebastian is the handsomest man she's ever actually laid eyes on—even though he has been in Willow's visions for years. But not even she could have predicted the storm of passion that engulfs them both. With Sebastian by her side, Willow is emboldened to embrace her history, and the sisters she never knew. Soon, the true power in her blood awakes—and the battle she was born to fight begins. While the tempest rages, Willow must depend on the friends and family she's found—and the man she has loved forever. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Smoke on the Water.


          FAIR WARNING: This review          
          contains spoilers for Heat of the Moment.          
MY REVIEW: 
     Through most of this novel, the action runs concurrently with the events of the second novel. If you haven't guessed by now, Willow is the woman who befriends Owen's mother, Mary McAllister—the friend who is mentioned in Heat of the Moment. This novel fills in the gaps in Mary's story, explaining just how she vanished from the asylum and traveled so quickly back to her home and to the site of the climactic closing scene of Heat of the Moment.


     Willow Black has always had visions when she looks into water, and several years ago those visions lead to her incarceration in the Northern Wisconsin Mental Health Facility after she stabbed a man she had seen in one of her visions. "I'd seen the vision of my own death—the man who would do it and what he would do. The stabbing, the branding, the burning…When the man from my vision appeared in real time I didn't wait for him to pull the blade that would end my life. I'd pulled my own and tried to end his."  


     In addition to her death vision, Willow has had recurring visions of herself making passionate love to a tall, handsome man who is destined to stand by her and save her life. To Willow's shock, that man turns out to be Sebastian Frasier, a psychiatrist who is the new administrator for the asylum. Their love story follows a bumpy but predictable road. Sebastian is Willow's psychiatrist, so even though he is attracted to her, he isn't allowed—legally or ethically—to follow through on his impulses. That means that through most of the story they engage in many long and meaningful glances, awkward conversations, and a bit of "accidental" touching. Willow has been in love with Sebastian for years through her visions, and Sebastian (conveniently) falls head over heels for her the instant he sees her for the first time. That means that theirs is a stereotypical insta-love relationship—that overused love-at-first-sight trope that has been the mainstay of too many paranormal romances over the years.  


     The first two books had better love stories because the couples don't have the insta-love problem. Although Raye and Bobby fall for each other relatively quickly in In the Air Tonight, their romance progresses along a more authentic and realistic path. In Heat of the Moment, Becca and Owen were childhood friends, then lovers, then ex-lovers before they renew their relationship. Again, much more authentic than Willow and Sebastian's jiffy-flash love at first sight. 

   The straightforward, not-too-suspenseful action stays in high gear throughout this final novel because the villainous Roland McHugh and his minions are determined to kill all three sisters. Mary plays a key role in this part of the plot, and she is much more important than we realized back in book two. The witchy story line plays out in a relatively predictable manner because from the beginning of the series we knew that it would end with the sisters and their parents confronting Roland. The best parts of the book are the scenes with the sisters as they learn to work together and the Epilogue, which ties up all of the loose ends and sends the three pairs of lovers off to their HEAs.


     After the inevitable confrontation with Roland, all of the conflicts are resolved. One of Roland's minions is easy to spot early in the story, but another just pops up without any real foreshadowing (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). All the way to the end, Roland is a stereotypically psychotic villain. Even though he has his reasons for hating Henry and Prudence, his hatred for the triplets is harder to understand—I guess that must be due to his psychosis.


     Of the three novels, this one is the weakest, partly because there is a lot of repetition of the high points of the mythology and partly because there is so much woo-woo action involving Mary's "transportations" and Willow's use of powers that she doesn't even know that she has. Those scenes are not always clearly narrated, and transitions between scenes are sometimes confusing. In each book, the heroine speaks in the first-person voice while the rest of the story is told from the hero's third-person perspective. In this book that is also true, but in some third-person scenes toward the end, it seemed as if someone other than Sebastian was in charge of the narration—perhaps one of the Jäger-Sucher team members or one of the other sisters.

     On the whole, I really enjoyed this series, but I wish that this final book had been stronger—less insta-love, a more complex plot line, and more suspense. In the Air Tonight wins my vote for the strongest book, with Heat of the Moment a close second. I recommend that you read the books in order so that you fully understand the mythology and the frequent references to earlier events.

NOTE: Early in the book, Sebastian mentions that the Wisconsin asylum "has been built to follow the Kirkbride Plan of asylums in the mid-nineteenth century." Click HERE if you are interested in reading more information about Dr. Thomas Kirkbride and the asylums that were built according to his plan. 

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

UPDATE! Nalini Singh: PSY-CHANGELING SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Nalini Singh's PSY-CHANGELING SERIES with a review of Shards of Hope, the 14th novel in the series.

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








Thursday, June 25, 2015

Clay and Susan Griffith: CROWN & KEY TRILOGY

Authors:  Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith  
Series:  CROWN & KEY TRILOGY 
Plot Type:  Steampunk FantasyHistorical Urban Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality1; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Del Rey
          The Shadow Revolution (6/2/2015)
          The Undying Legion (6/30/2015)
          The Conquering Dark (7/28/2015)


This post was revised and updated on 8/2/15 to include a review of The Undying Legion, the second novel in the series. That review appears about half-way through this post, following an overview of the World-Building and a review of book one. At the very end of the post, I have included the publisher's blurb for book 3 (but no review).

                          WORLD-BUILDING                          
     The series is set in an alternate London during the nineteenth century. Although the back-cover blurb sets the time period as Victorian (1837-1901), the authors (in an on-line interview) place it in the late 1820s.

     The cultural and social elements (e.g., clothing, language, class differences) seem to be portrayed realistically, although a fair amount of steampunk gadgetry turns up from time to time. And, that's all, folksno more world-building, none at all!

     I came to this series with great expectations, having enjoyed the Griffith's VAMPIRE EMPIRE TRILOGY immensely. (Click HERE to read my reviews of those books.) That series was set in a complex, fascinating world filled with interesting, multi-dimensional characters and action-packed plots. Here's what I said in my review of the final novel in that series: "All of the leading characters and most of the supporting characters are fully developed, with extensive personal histories and complex personalities. No one is all good or all bad. Even though [some characters] are villains, we understand what made them that way. We also understand why they must be destroyed, but we...don't necessarily feel good about it. In every book, characters must grapple with issues of morality, loyalty, and justice, and they consistently do it in interesting and compelling ways. The Griffiths have created a marvelous world in this trilogy, and I highly recommend it." 

     Unfortunately, based on my reading of the first book in CROWN & KEY, I can't make any of those complimentary comments. In fact, I can't make any complimentary comments at all.

     The publisher prefaces the blurbs for the three CROWN & KEY novels with identical braggadocio: "A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr." Don't believe a word of that boastful statement. If you are a fan of Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, let me warn you right now that this series is in no way comparable to that terrific seriesnot in the world-building, plot quality, character development, or complexity of action. There are a few similarities to Penny Dreadful, but the TV show has much better story lines and infinitely better character development. I haven't followed Downey's Sherlock Holmes films, but I can't imagine that this series is in any way comparable.

                          NOVEL 1:  The Shadow Revolution                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     They are the realm’s last, best defense against supernatural evil. But they’re going to need a lot more silver.

     As fog descends, obscuring the gas lamps of Victorian London, werewolves prowl the shadows of back alleys. But they have infiltrated the inner circles of upper-crust society as well. Only a handful of specially gifted practitioners are equipped to battle the beasts. Among them are the roguish Simon Archer, who conceals his powers as a spell-casting scribe behind the smooth veneer of a dashing playboy; his layabout mentor, Nick Barker, who prefers a good pub to thrilling heroics; and the self-possessed alchemist Kate Anstruther, who is equally at home in a ballroom as she is on a battlefield.

     After a lycanthrope targets Kate’s vulnerable younger sister, the three join forces with fierce Scottish monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane—but quickly discover they’re dealing with a threat far greater than anything they ever imagined.

MY REVIEW:
     The first novel in a new series generally includes enough world-building details to establish a sense of place; set up the "rules," so to speak, for the mythology; and provide at least the beginnings of the back stories for the primary characters. Unfortunately, the Griffiths assume that the reader knows enough about 19th century London society to understand what's going on and enough about steampunk fantasy to appreciate the gadgetry, so they don't provide any background on either. As for the development of the characters, that is sketchy at bestexcept for Simon Archer and Kate Anstruther. Those two characters at least get back stories, even though they are not by any means complete. The other main characters are flatsometimes stereotypical, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes just plain underdeveloped.

     Simon is a scribea magician who derives his power from written runes and magical words, many of which are tattooed all over his body. He masquerades as a society playboy and solves an occasional supernatural mystery on the side. Simon's mentor is Nick, who has been teaching Simon to use his magical talents, but is prone to going off to drink, thus missing a scene of two here and there. Nick is a magician who can shoot blasts of fire out of his hands. Simon's late father was also a magician, a member of a guild of magicians called the Order of the Oak, of which we learn very little, even though it has a connection with the plot. Oddly, even though Simon and Nick have apparently been traveling together for some years, Nick knows nothing about Simon's father's past until Simon explains it to him towards the beginning of this book. In that scene, several other names are mentioned: Byron Pendragon, Ash, and Gaios, at least one of whom will apparently be turning up in the third book. In this novel, the authors do not provide any details about Nick's back story. 

     Kate is feisty and independent. She is a skilled alchemist who learned her craft from her late father, and she has always worked hard to be as skilled as he was. She and her sister live on a posh estate with a huge staff of servants, including the intrepid Hogarth, who serves a protector for Kate and her sister (and that's all we learn about Hogarth). The final member of the good-guy team is Malcolm, a rough and ready Scotsman who has been hunting down monsters all his life and whose father had an unhappy connection with Simon's father (and that's all we learn about Malcolm).

     The plot is simple: Once Simon and his mentor, Nick, team up with Kate and Malcolm, they go after the werewolves who have targeted Kate's rebellious, TSTL younger sister, Imogene. There is an unvarying pattern to the plot structure: The good guys plan and strategize; then, they are attacked by monsters (sometimes werewolves, sometimes homunculi, sometimes both) and have a pages-long battle filled with spell casting, explosive weapons, slashing swords, spine-tingling howls, gnashing teeth, and bloody claws. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At times, I began to wonder if the Griffiths really meant to parody the worst of the werewolf/steampunk fiction on the market, but a good parody is entertaining in its own right, and this novel is definitely not entertaining. By the time I was halfway through, I was just paging past the repetitive battle scenes trying to find some originality in the plot line (but was unsuccessful).

     And let's not forget the evildoers, all of whom are rotten through and through, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When asked why he does the grisly things he does, one of the villains actually responds: "Because I can." The one-dimensional, all-bad-all-the-time villains are so mindless and sociopathic that they are completely predictable, and, therefore, exceedingly uninteresting. 

     A major misstep in the world-building (or lack thereof), is the absence of details about the mythology surrounding the werewolves. The werewolves just come howling into the story line with no introduction, no origin story, and no "life rules." For example, none of the following issues are clarifiedmost aren't even addressed: Do these werewolves have a moon connection? Are they always bornor are they former humans who were bitten? At one point, Simon claims that all werewolves are born that way, but later, when Malcolm comes across a den of them, he says, "I could tell many of them were fresh to their condition. Wulvers, they're called." So…which is it? Born or turned or both? Why can one werewolf control the bestial urges when in beast form, while the others cannotor will not? If they live in packs under the control of prime, why do they kowtow to Gretta (other than the fact that she is a scary, bloodthirsty, power-mad beast)? In what part(s) of the world do these werewolves usually live? What, exactly, is the purpose of the wulfsyl, which plays a major part of the plot, but is not fully explained.

     It is hard for me to believe that the same authors who wrote the terrific VAMPIRE EMPIRE TRILOGY have written CROWN & KEY. I am so very, very disappointed.

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Shadow Revolution, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 2:  The Undying Legion                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     With a flood of dark magic about to engulf Victorian London, can a handful of heroes vanquish a legion of the undead?

     When monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane comes across the gruesome aftermath of a ritual murder in a London church, he enlists the help of magician-scribe Simon Archer and alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther. Studying the macabre scene, they struggle to understand obscure clues in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s heart—as well as bizarre mystical allusions to the romantic poetry of William Blake. One thing is clear: Some very potent black magic is at work.

     But this human sacrifice is only the first in a series of ritualized slayings. Desperate to save lives while there is still time, Simon, Kate, and Malcolm—along with gadget geek Penny Carter and Charlotte, an adolescent werewolf—track down a necromancer who is reanimating the deceased. As the team battles an unrelenting army of undead, a powerful Egyptian mummy, and serpentine demons, the necromancer proves an elusive quarry. And when the true purpose of the ritual is revealed, the gifted allies must confront a destructive force that is positively apocalyptic.

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Undying Legion, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

MY REVIEW:
     I am not going to summarize the plot because the publisher's blurb tells you all you need to know. This story is like a really lame Da Vinci Code-type story mashed up with every campy mummy movie you've ever seen. Simon and Kate and their allies discover mutilated bodies in churches, find ambiguous but supposedly important references to William Blake's poetry, uncover a connection to ancient Egyptian deities, and fight a series of meaningless battles with a variety of foes, including a slavering werewolf pack; several different groups of reanimated corpses; some slithering, carnivorous demon-snakes; and several ancient deities who have risen to take back their powers. 

     The plot has two speeds: a slow plod and a frenzied turmoil. The authors use a pattern of repetitive segments in which one part of the group does some investigation and then is immediately forced into a life or death battle with some monstrous enemya battle that the good guy and/or gal always wins. And repeat and repeat, etc. This alternating surveillance-to-scuffle pattern begins early on and continues through until the final pages. I found myself paging through fight scene after fight scene, completely uninterested in who was being thrown into a wall, or tossed around like a rag doll, or jabbed with a left hook, or clawed in the chest, or strangled by the beast of the day. The story line becomes more and more convoluted until it finally ends with a resolution that includes several twists, but by that point I just didn't care any more.

     Don't take my word on it. Here are two sections of William Blake's poem, "Jerusalem," that are key to the plot. See if you make any sense of these lines.


      And the Four Zoas clouded rage, East & West & North & South:
      They change their situations, in the Universal Man.
      Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face,
      And England, who is Brittannia, divided into Jerusalem & Vala:
      And Urizen assumes the East, Luvah assumes the South,
      Is his dark Spectre ravening from his open Sepulcher.

      Her voice pierc'd Albion's clay cold ear, he moved upon the Rock:
      The Breath Divine went forth upon the morning hills, Albion mov'd
      Upon the Rock, he open'd his eyelids in pain; in pain he mov'd
      His stony members, he saw England. Ah! shall the Dead live again?
      The Breath Divine went forth over the morning hills, Albion rose
      In anger: the wrath of God breaking bright, flaming on all sides around
      His awful limbs; into the Heavens he walked, clothed in flames

     On a more personal note, Simon and Kate share their first kiss and then a few more, so that romance is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, Malcolm makes the acquaintance of Eleanor, a magical young woman who will certainly be featured in the final novel. Toward the end of the book, Malcolm takes a good look at Penny Carter, the quirky weapons inventor, so there may be romance coming for the two of them. Simon's mentor, Nick, turns up very briefly in the middle of the book (as grumpy as ever), but is soon left behind. Once again, there is little or no character development for the secondary characters. We do meet Penny's crippled brother, and we do learn more about Simon's parents, but that's about it. My favorite character is Charlotte, who comes to live on Kate's estate and eventually becomes Malcolm's sidekick (with great reluctance on his part). 

     This is definitely not a stand-alone book. It is a transition between the beginnings of the key-related plot that began in book one and the big Gaios showdown in book three. If you try to read this book first, you will have a tough time understanding the frequent references to events that occurred in The Shadow Revolution.

     This series has been a huge disappointment to me so far. The Undying Legion has a stale, I've-read-this-before feeling to it. The authors have pulled together a few clichéd steampunky bits and added the old, familiar ancient-power-escapes trope, but they have failed to fully develop their mythology and their characters. As a result of these problematic issues, I do not plan to read the final novel. (But the publisher's blurb for the third novel appears below.) When I find myself not caring about what happens to the main characters in a series after reading the first two books, I know that it is time to stop reading that series. 

                          NOVEL 3:  The Conquering Dark                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     The Crown and Key Society face their most terrifying villain yet: Gaios, a deranged demigod with the power to destroy Britain.

     To avenge a centuries-old betrayal, Gaios is hell-bent on summoning the elemental forces of the earth to level London and bury Britain. The Crown and Key Society, a secret league consisting of a magician, an alchemist, and a monster-hunter, is the realm’s only hope—and to stop Gaios, they must gather their full strength and come together as a team, or the world will fall apart.

     But Simon Archer, the Crown and Key’s leader and the last living magician-scribe, has lost his powers. As Gaios searches for the Stone of Scone, which will give him destructive dominion over the land, monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther, gadget geek Penny Carter, and Charlotte the werewolf scramble to reconnect Simon to his magic before the world as they know it is left forever in ruins. 

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Conquering Dark, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kate Baxter: LAST TRUE VAMPIRE SERIES

Author:  Kate Baxter  
Series:  LAST TRUE VAMPIRE 
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  St. Martin's
          The Last True Vampire (6/2015)
          The Warrior Vampire (12/2015)
          The Dark Vampire (5/2016)

This ongoing post was updated on 3/24/2016 to include the publisher's blurb for The Dark Vampire, the third novel in this series. That review appears at the bottom of this post, preceded by an overview of the world-building and full reviews of the first two novels.

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
     This series is set in a typical old-school paranormal romance world with vampires beset by an ancient cult of vampire-hating zealots who hide their fanaticism behind organized religion. The series heroes live lonely lives until they meet their soul mates (aka rodstvennaya dusha). 

     The author uses the standard vampire mythology (night-walking, sun sensitive, super-strong and fast, unbelievably handsome) with just a few innovations (e.g., a secondary set of fangs on the upper jaw). "When a dhampir is made into a vampire…our hearts cease beating; the breath stalls in our chests. Blood no longer flows through our veins and we no longer need food to sustain us. But there is a hunger. A thirst for blood that must be sated. And when a vampire drinks from a living vein, our bodies awaken, resume their normal functions until the lifeblood cycles through our system...After the blood works through our systems, the vampire's body returns to dormancy until the thirst returns and the cycle starts anew." (from The Last True Vampire)


     As the series begins, only one true vampire (aka Ancient One) is left in the world: Mikhail (aka Michael) Aristov, who lives in Los Angeles. Here, Baxter introduces him to the reader: "Michael Aristov was the last of the Ancient Ones, untethered and soulless, the lone remaining carrier of the collective memory, and the sole guardian of an orphaned race. And if he didn't feed soon he would be the death of them all." (from The Last True Vampire) After this somewhat ambiguous introduction, Baxter explains, and re-explains, Michael's problematic situation. In this mythology, people with vampire blood in their veins—no matter how little—are dhampirs who form a parasitic collective that draws power from and shares their memories with Michael (and any other true vampire that may be created). Because the members of the collective continually try to draw power and strength from him and constantly send him their memories, Michael spends a lot of time physically exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed.


     Unfortunately, Baxter's explanations of the workings of the collective are murky at best, even though she tries to explain it over and over and over again throughout the first novel. Here is her first metaphorical attempt: "Every vampire had been descended from a single creature. Like a grove of aspen trees were interconnected, the blood that created them tied them to one another. And there was just enough of that ancient blood flowing through every dhampir's veins to connect them all to Michael." (from The Last True Vampire) The aspen tree metaphor is not accurate, and I discuss that problem below as part of my review of the first book.


     In this world, dhampirs need to drink blood only four times a year. Between blood meals, they eat and metabolize regular food. Although vampires cannot walk in the sun, dhampirs can. Dhampir males are sterile, but male vampires can reproduce. (No reproductive info is given about the female dhampirs.) According to Baxter's mythology, dhampirs are born from either a vampire mating or a vampire/human coupling. This explanation is problematic because there has been only a single vampire on Earth for many centuries, and he hasn't mated with anyone, so where did all of these dhampirs come from? Once again, this part of the mythology is clunky and poorly conceived, so it is unfortunate that it plays such a major role in the stories.

     A dhampir can become a true vampire only after being drained of blood and then drinking the blood of a true vampire. At that point, the person goes through a brief but painful transition and emerges with true vampiric powers. During the transition, the "soul [becomes untethered and] is sent into oblivion. It's the price that's paid for becoming stronger and developing keener senses." When a vampire connects with his true mate, she returns his soul to him and he is tethered once again. The mates have close mental and emotional connections after they exchange blood. Note: All of the explanations regarding the mythology portray the dhampir and vampire as male and the mate as female. What happens when the dhampir is female? Do the same rules apply? Those questions are not addressed in the first novel.


     The Los Angeles dhampirs live in thirteen covens that are divided by social class and belief systems. Most dhampirs want to become true vampires, but until Michael finds his mate and becomes tethered, he doesn't have the strength to transform them. One coven leader named Siobhan hates Michael and preaches against becoming a soulless vampire. She accuses Michael of forcibly attempting to turn dhampirs into vampires. Although Michael has tried to transform a few dhampirs over the past centuries, he has done so only when he had sufficient strength at the time the dhampir requested the change. Unfortunately, all of those dhampirs died during the transformation process, and Michael hasn't had enough strength to do a transformation for many, many decades.


     The major villains of the series are the Sortiari, who appear to have escaped from a Dan Brown novel. They are a cult that hides behind the skirts of the Catholic Church. To track down and kill vampires and dhampirs, they hire gangs of Scottish berserkers. The Sortiari claim to be influencers of fate. "For millennia the Sortiari have taken it upon themselves to fulfill what they believe is a divine purpose: changing the course of Fate. The supernatural community isn't their only target. Politicians, religious figures, humanitarians, criminals…Anyone or anything that goes against their agenda is a potential target." Several centuries ago, the Sortiari's berserkers killed every single true vampire in the world—at least that's what they believed. But after one of them (Gregor) stabbed Michael through the heart with a silver-tipped wooden stake, he didn't make sure that Michael was truly dead. Michael lay for a century in an underground dungeon subsisting on the blood of rats until he gained enough strength to make his escape.


                         NOVEL 1:  The Last True Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     As Michael's eyes lit on a female not twenty feet away, he knew that it was her blood that called to him and her scent that had awakened him. This female had tethered his soul and returned it to him. 

     SOUL SURVIVOR: He is the last of his race. The one true king of the vampires. Michael Aristov roams the nightclubs of L.A. after dark, haunted by his past and driven by his hunger. The last of the Ancient Ones, he alone has survived the destruction of his race at the hands of the slayers. Now he is forced to hunt and feed like a common vampire, a creature of lust. Nothing in this world can fulfill his needs...until he meets a woman who's everything he's ever wanted and more.

     SWEET SALVATION: Her name is Claire Thompson. Her blood is so sweet, so intoxicating—the smell alone draws Michael to her like a moth to the flame. Sly, sexy, and seductive, Claire seems to be the only mortal who can satisfy his craving and seal his fate...forever. Can she be trusted? From their very first kiss, the last true vampire sweeps Claire into a world in which darkness rules desire—and where falling in love is the greatest danger of all...

MY REVIEW: 
     The author has set her melodrama meter at the highest level from the beginning to the end of this stereotypical paranormal romance featuring a melancholy ancient vampire and his feisty modern-day heroine. Michael's interior monologues gush with so many overblown, angst-filled, histrionic expressions that they are frequently laughable rather than poignant.

     Basically, the plot revolves around Michael's discovery of Claire, his true mate, and her refusal to participate in his vampire soul-mate scenario. Both Siobhan and the Sortiari add to the conflict. 

     Even though Claire does run away from Michael at one point, she sticks with him long enough for a handful of graphically portrayed sex scenes, all of which play out in typical, old-school paranormal romance style. In fact, Baxter manages to include just about every clichéd paranormal romance trope that you have ever read, including the inevitable shower scene and sex-by-the-pool scene and the compulsory "Mine!" exclamations at climactic moments. Here are some more of the tired old tropes included in this novel:

    >>  the aloof, ancient, very wealthy vampire hero with a tragic past, a joyless present, and a grim future

    >>  the spunky, sassy human heroine with a tragic childhood, a heart of gold, and a few semi-magical talents that develop further as the story progresses (astonishly, she doesn't have red hair)

    >>  the mandatory TSTL actions of the heroine, which put herself and the hero in terrible danger

    >>  the cutesy activities they engage in, like playing cards (Go Fish) and cooking meals for one another—each morsel described in torturous detail

    >>  the relationship-destroying "second thought" scenes that immediately follow each of their erotic love scenes

    >>  the hero's snarky but loyal best friend and right-hand man who saved the hero's life in the past and who sacrifices his freedom for his bro

    >>  the fanatical, sociopathic, blood-thirsty human villains

    >>  the power-mad supernatural villain who hates the hero and tries to use his friend against him

     As the book opens, Michael's life is not a happy one. When he goes out to the local vampire clubs, the parasitic dhampirs follow him around, hoping that he will share his strength with them. "They saw a savior, while Michael saw himself as nothing more than a soulless creature destined to fall through time in a state of perpetual emptiness." 

     Baxter keeps trying to explain the strength-sharing and the memory-sharing parts of the mythology, but she never really nails it. Her aspen tree analogy does not represent a true comparison to the vampire collective as she portrays it. Aspen trees grow in clonal colonies, which means that each tree in a particular colony descends from a single seedling and that all of those trees are genetically identical to one another. They do not draw power or strength from the original tree; they stand on their own, generating growth from sun and rain and soil nutrients. The aspens are not parasites, but that is how Baxter's dhampirs are portrayed. Also, the dhampirs are not genetically identical to Michael. 

     Here is another problem: How can Michael even exist if all of those dhampirs have been leeching away his strength for centuries. Wouldn't they have drained and killed him by now? A related problem: Because of the weird parasitic connection between the dhampirs and Michael, they can draw strength from Michael when he has it, but they also suffer when Michael is weak and hungry, which—up until now—has been true most of the time. 

     And what about that collective memory? Why doesn't Michael use the dhampirs' memories to shore up his defenses against his enemies. If they share their minds with him, he should have access to everything they know, but the only memories Michael gets (at least the ones mentioned in the narrative) are the really bad ones from the long-ago past, never any current knowledge that would help him fight off his enemies. Baxter needs to work on the "collective" part of her mythology because huge parts of it make no sense.

     As you can tell from my review, I'm not crazy about this series, primarily because of its reliance on tired tropes, its lack of freshness and inventiveness, and its poorly constructed world-building. I will read the second novel just to see if Baxter makes any improvements, but I don't have much hope.

     To read an excerpt from The Last True Vampire, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page and click on the cover art. The second novel—The Warrior Vampire—will tell the soul-mate story of Ronan and Naya.

                     NOVEL 2:  The Warrior Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     The vampire was built for sin, every inch of him tight and bulky with corded muscle. A killer, that much was apparent, and she couldn't help but wonder if his appetite for violence would rival his appetites for other…things. 

A WOMAN SEDUCED
 
     Naya Morales is no ordinary mortal. Born with a shaman's power, she has devoted her life to tracking down stolen magic-and punishing those who take it. But one fateful night, she follows the alluring call of a sensual magic that is too glorious to be true-and finds herself face to face with a stunningly handsome thief who is too magnificent to resist. 

A VAMPIRE ENSLAVED
 
     From the moment he sees her, Ronan knows Naya is his mate. Driven by a deep, almost mystical connection, he aches for her body, hungers for her blood, and swears their souls are anchored together. Naya refuses to believe the words of a vampire-or risk the wrath of her tribe. But when she tries to make Ronan her prisoner, neither chains of silver nor fires of hell can help her escape the truth: she is the one who's been captured, in The Warrior Vampire by Kate Baxter.

MY REVIEW: 
     First, I have to admit that I couldn't force myself to read this entire novel, although I did read the first 200 pagesso, more than half of the total 365 pagesand I skimmed quickly through the rest. By the end of the fourth chapter I was pretty sure of the villain's identity, and soon after that I had figured out the gist of the plot mysteries. So why didn't I finish reading the book? For several reasons:

1. Just as in the first book, Baxter's writing style is so melodramatic that it mimics 1980s bodice rippers, but with the addition of fangs and magic and blood-sucking vamps. Examples: "She cleaved to Ronan, kissing him as though she'd been starved for the contact for eternity…" ("Cleaved"…really?); "Your body is the altar at which I pray.""the sharp cut of his cheekbones made him look as though he'd been sculpted from marble." (I believe that this line appeared multiple times in the TWILIGHT series. Edward was notorious for his marble body parts.); "Fire chased through her veins…Pleasure pulsed low in her core and a deep, needy ache opened up inside of her." (This lineor something similaris standard boilerplate in romance novels. It's time for a freshening up of the descriptive language.)

2. The lead loversNaya and Ronanspend most of their time either arguing or jumping each other's bones. In the first half of the book, Naya spends a lot of time threatening to kill Ronan with her magic dagger, followed by scenes in which she lets him bite her and enjoys every second of their close bodily encounters. Meanwhile, the action part of the plot is ignored completelyfor chapters at a time. 

3. The villain at the heart of the plot is immediately apparent because of his surly attitude and his illogical behavior (and I'm not talking about the Sortiari idiots because we already know that they are the bad guys of the whole series). Baxter drops in a mini-story line about the Sortiari, but it just shrivels up and dies away.

4. Although the Bororo mythology is somewhat interesting, Baxter defies logic when she puts the tribe into a very small town and has them all living in buildings on the same city block. In such a small town, how could this much adjacent real estate suddenly be available for the tribe to take over? And why don't the locals notice that they have this patriarchal, retro cult living in their midstright in the middle of their town?

5. And that brings me to the misogynism inherent in the Bororo mythology. This is a paternalistic society in which only the men are shifters and only one or two women at a time are bruja (witches or sorcerers). Meanwhile, all of the womenmagical or notare treated like useless possessions (e.g., forced into arranged marriages, ruled by strict social restrictions, not allowed to speak for themselves). Are we to believe that this kind of a society could be kept invisible from the local population? Don't these children go to the local public school? Doesn't anyone notice how the women and girls are being treated? It's the 21st century in the U.S.A.a time period driven by social media. I just didn't buy this whole male-dominated culture as being possible in this small townnot without someone calling attention to it on a going-to-viral tweet or Facebook post.

6. Naya's job as the tribe's bruja is to go out all by herself, night after night, hunting down and battling with huge, dangerous demons. Not a single male shifter ever accompanies her, so she has absolutely no back-up until Ronan shows up. This is totally illogical. Why on earth would she be required to hunt alone? Why wouldn't a shifter or two accompany her? After all, they are huge, fierce jaguars who would be quite helpful in a fight with a demon.

7. And then there's my usual pet peeve: huge evil monsters stalking around town unseen by anyone except the hero and heroine. 

     In the slim action plot, Naya's job is to track down mapinguari. Here is Naya's explanation when Ronan asks her what a mapinguari is: "A demon…When magic infects a body that it's not meant to reside in, it corrupts the host..It's usually humans who get themselves into trouble. Trying to harness a power they can't possibly comprehend…The magic attaches itself to the host and from there it takes over. It manifests into something dark and unnatural. A creature hell-bent on destruction." Lately, Crescent City has been swarming with mapinguari, so Naya has been out hunting every night, tracking them down and killing them with her magic dagger, which sucks the magic into itself when she stabs a mapinguari. She then delivers the magic to a tribal member for safe keeping. Although she has been doing this for years, she never wonders what happens to the demon magicnot until now, that is. How convenient.

     Ronan's part of the plot is that he can't remember anything that happened to him after he arrived in Crescent City several days ago. Naya finds him dripping with magic and almost kills him, but relents at the last moment because of the magical music that he is projecting. (Being able to hear magical music is one of her bruja abilities.) Eventually, Ronan remembers that he came here in search of his sister, who was on the hunt for an ancient artifact of great power. Could the artifact have a connection with the mapinguari? And where is Ronan's sister?

     All in all, I'd have to say that I didn't like this book any more than I did the first onenot very much at all. Consequently, this is the last book in this series that I will be reviewing. In the future, I will list new books at the top of this post as they are published, and I will include the publisher's blurb for each new book on in the body of this post. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Warrior Vampire on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art..

                     NOVEL 3:  The Dark Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Jenner is a newly turned vampire who stalks the night like a wild beast of prey, hunting and feeding his appetites with a string of willing women…and always wanting more. Nothing can satisfy the aching hunger that burns inside him―until he crosses paths with a beautiful, innocent vampire who sets his soul on fire.

     Bria has never been able to escape the confines of her uncle’s home. But when the smolderingly sexy Jenner saves her―and promises to be her bodyguard―Bria is brought to a dark world of dangerous, insatiable desire. But once they feed upon each other, they expose themselves to an evil that they never saw coming…and now there’s no turning back. Will they divide and conquer―or stay together and lose it all to lust?

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Dark Vampire on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art.