James L. Sutter, Death’s Heretic

I have to confess I have a bias against game-linked fantasy books. Far too often, in my experience, the game mechanics and the game world take precedence over the story. Even when the author is a well-known fantasy writer, the results can be deadly.

Death’s Heretic is linked to the Pathfinder roleplaying game (which I haven’t played), but I had to put my prejudices aside. This isn’t just a novelization of a game arc. Of course, the book does show off some of the fun elements in the Pathfinder universe — or rather, multiverse, since much of the story takes plane on alternate planes. But there’s much more to it than that, because Salim, its protagonist, is a fascinating, effectively-drawn character.

As the tale progresses, we gradually learn what has turned Salim from a priest-hunter who despises all gods into a servant of the Goddess of Death (whom he still despises.) He is presented with enough restraint that we don’t burn out on or react negatively to his story, but also with enough deftness that he is sympathetic (though it would be very easy to have made a character with his traits and history into an antihero or even a villain.)

You get a fast-moving adventure, a fantasy feast with all the trimmings, but you also get a character study that will haunt you long after you’ve forgotten most of the events in the plot.

Salim. Here’s wishing him peace, knowing he is unlikely ever to be at peace, with himself or with his place in the world.

Death’s Heretic is available from Paizo Publishing. I got a copy of it at Book Expo America, and have no other connection with the author or the publisher.

Aurelio Voltaire, Call of the Jersey Devil

A lot of people are going to love this book. (Of course, that does mean that there will be others who won’t get it.) So here’s why!

Do you remember that B movie? The one that was so utterly ‘B-movie’ that you couldn’t possibly take it seriously? The one that was so over the top you loved it precisely because it so gleefully did everything a B movie does, and worse?

Yeah, that movie. And this is that book.

Don’t read it if you’re looking for soul-searching (unless you mean the kind a ghoul does when it wakes up and discovers it hasn’t got one any more.)

Don’t read it if you’re looking for a romantic interest (unless you don’t mind the pretty girl turning into a wicked, ugly hag right when things get interesting.)

Don’t read it if you’re looking for distant lands (unless you’re from New York, in which case New Jersey qualifies.)

But if you’d love that B-movie feel, complete with clueless teenagers, animated corpses, and undead figures shambling through the mouth of hell, this book will give you a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek adventure.

Just remember the rules for surviving a horror flick. Especially the one that warns you never to say, “I’ll be right back.”

Oooh, this looks like a fun story, filled to the brim with horror and B-movie tropes, cheerfully exploiting every stereotype anybody every dreamt up involving goth teenagers, shopping malls, and lonely spots deep in the woods.

I’ll be right back!

Frozen (Heart of Dread, 1) by Melissa de la Cruz & Michael Johnston

Forget global warming. If you want a real dystopia, imagine poisoned seas covered by drifting trashbergs, snow in the American Southwest, and polar bears in Los Angeles. Imagine a world in which fresh water is a delicacy and strange mutants have weird powers. Imagine a world in which government oppression is so extreme that people will pay fortunes for the chance to get out … even though the only way out is a mythical country, ‘The Blue’, where the sky and sea are clean. But no one knows if it exists. At least, no one has ever returned to tell the tale.

This is the world we enter in this novel. There are dual protagonists: Nat, a girl on the run, working as a dealer in one of New Vegas’ glitziest casinos, trying to to get the cash to pay a runner to escape to the Blue. And Wes, a mercenary who has just drawn the line and refused a job too dirty even for blood money. She needs a guide. He needs a job. Together, they set forth to find the Blue. But things are not as they seem, and as they proceed, they learn that more is at stake than their own lives. Theirs is a world without magic — except for people like Nat with strange, mutant powers — but in reality, the magic is trying to return. Yet the world may be too grim, too poisoned to allow Avalon to bring renewal.

This is in part a story of revelations, both about the world and about the characters’ backstory, and the authors handle the resulting tensions well. We’re kept slightly baffled, but enjoying it as we piece together the bits to build up a clear vision of the world. The interaction between Wes and Nat is especially strong, and finely drawn. These are characters you care about.

If there’s anything that bugs me, it would be this book’s tendency to go from shades of grey to black-and-white when it comes to the government’s role. We end up with a kind of morality tale background (good magic; bad technogovernment) which is drawn much more simplistically than the story of Wes and Nat and their friends.

But that’s perhaps too picky. The world is brilliant, the characterization striking, and the adventures suck you right in. I recommend it highly.

I read an advance review copy of Frozen that was distributed at Book Expo America. It will be released Sept. 17, 2013.

Not Every Prince is Charming, by Elliott James

Funny how obvious it is now that I think about it.

Urban fantasy is 40s noir, decked out differently. Dark themes, brightly lit up by flashes of morbid humor.

Sometimes literally. Lots of urban fantasy goes with some variant of the detective-for-hire angle. But even when they don’t, you still have the brooding male lead with a dark past, and the beautiful woman who comes seeking his help …

Or you have those things with a twist. That’s this book. The girl is a Valkyrie, and doesn’t really need his help (except, in the end, when she does). The hero is a hunted man, not a detective.

But when his problem is that his internal Werewolf is trying to get out, the noir tropes come hot and heavy, because the sexiness of the noir male protagonist is that sense of danger, that he could so easily be one of the bad guys the girls need saving from, instead of the hero.

Difference from paranormal romance is that the danger is unavoidable, like the scent of blood on the air after a hive of vampires has been taken down.

I guess I’m getting a bit too metaphorical here. This is a good book. It starts with the usual tropes for urban fantasy, but the humorous title (and for that matter, all the humorous chapter titles too, and the other flashes of humor embedded throughout) should not confuse the reader.

This isn’t a light and funny book. It’s noir.

And it all comes down to a knife-fight in the dark.

(Though come to think of it, fangs and claws have something to recommend them.)

I got an advanced review copy of Not Every Prince is Charming at Book Expo America. The book will come out Sept. 23, 2013.

Awoken, by Timothy Miller

This is a fast, fun YA read that younger teens especially should enjoy. In the middle of the night, Michael Stevens, a boy bounced from one foster care to another, witnesses a cat being killed by strange doll-men. He is frightened to awaken the next night to discover doll-men in his room, insisting that he drink from a cup of stone, and be ‘Awoken’. Things go downhill from there, as bloodthirsty beast-men and intelligent beasts with mismatched eyes (plus one mad scientist) chase him and his friends to obtain a mysterious source of power called earthbone.

The great strength of this book is the swift-moving plot and the ease with which we can sympathize with the main character. His is an easy head to get into, and his to-be-girlfriend, Lina, is well-drawn and engaging. Weaknesses fall into the category of things-you-maybe-shouldn’t-ask-for-because-they-weren’t-aimed-for-either. This isn’t a deep book (nor was it intended to be). The characterization is done in broad strokes. The world-building is plausible but not to the degree of rigor that I personally prefer (though I admit to being a perfectionist when it comes to fantasy elements in a book.) The way the doll-men talk … grates on me a bit, but the effect feels intentional. After all, what’s the point being a great hero if those who call the hero into action don’t TREAT him a bit like a hero? He might decide he’s just the kid who doesn’t have friends and that nobody wants as he’s bounced from one foster home to the next, and then he might not be motivated enough to save the world!

Sit back, enjoy the ride, don’t look at the man behind the curtain, and it’s great fun. It’d be a good book to give to a 12-14 year old who enjoys adventure stories, because that’s what it delivers. An adventure story, with a hero who gets unprecedented powers and uses them to stop the mad scientist, save the world, and incidentally, get the girl.

I got this book at Book Expo America. It is scheduled for release on August 13, 2013.

Heather Terrell, Relic: the Books of Eva

This is a very strong YA dystopian set in a future world in which sea levels have risen catastrophically and a survivor society lives on a remote Arctic island. Eva, daughter of a ruling family in this society, rejects their expectations for women, and is determined to take her dead brother’s place in a brutal competition that decides who will end up in a position of power and responsibility.

Eva’s voice comes through very strongly — idealistic and naive, yet tough as nails. She has to survive Arctic conditions, handle a team of sled dogs, hunt for food, watch out for competitors, and deal with gradual disillusionment as some of her society’s secrets start to wear very thin. Yet she’s ready to take on the next challenge — even when it’s not at all what she had dreamed for herself, in the first place.

The Arctic world is incredibly well realized. Types of snow, survival conditions in the arctic, Inuit culture — it’s all very believable, and makes for a very unusual and fun setting. That by itself was worth the price of admission.

Like a lot of YA books in first person, one weakness is that secondary characters are not always as strongly realized as I would like; another, is that the complications that are revealed do not seem inevitable — I can imagine other ways the plot could have gone, and can come up with awkward questions that aren’t fully prepared for in the narrative. For instance, the intensity of her belief in the myths of her world are very credible; the ease with which she takes the disturbing developments later in the book that undermine her beliefs, not quite so easy to credit. Partly this is an effect of the length: it’s only 276 pages, probably rather less than 80,000 words, which makes sense for a YA, but makes it hard to resolve all of the plot issues cleanly.

But this is me being over-critical. Most readers — and certainly, most YA readers — are going to love the way the story moves and the character’s voice. Eva is a character you fall in love with and just passionately wish you could protect, but know you can’t. The twists surprise you. Sometimes the lack of twists surprise you! And there are a lot of elements very skillfully prepared and foreshadowed.

Soho usually publishes mysteries. This isn’t a mystery, though there are certainly mysteries in her world that the protagonist must confront. But it’s a great read, and one that readers looking for something like the Hunger Games (but different, and refreshing) will certainly consider worth the price of admission.

I got an advanced review copy of this book at the Book Expo America this summer. It will be released Oct. 29, 2013.

Lisa Goldstein, The Dream Years

I’m starting on this blog with short reviews of works that really made an impact on me when I read them. Eventually I’ll review newer works, but for now … another work not to miss.

Urban? Check.

Fantasy? Check.

Romance? Check.

Time travel? Check.

Revolution? Check.

Surrealism? Check.

This isn’t your normal fantasy. It’s a dream-walk. Almost literally. Vivid, powerful, and imaginative.

Read it.

Meredith Ann Pierce, The Darkangel

    When her mistress, Eoduin, is carried off by the Darkangel, Aeriel despairs of ever seeing her again. But then the Darkangel carries her off, to his home on a high crag, where Eoduin lives with the ghosts of his other eleven wives. How can she save Eoduin from the Darkangel? How can she save herself?

    And he is so beautiful. If only there were a way to save him from himself.

    This work is a classic. It’s vampyres as they should be (forget about the sparkly kind with the usual spelling). Read it. It’s like a dream talking.

Tanith Lee, The Birthgrave

    She wakes alone, without memories, in an abandoned temple inside a volcano that is about to erupt. She has the power of a goddess, but no understanding of the world into which she has emerged. She will soon learn all there is to know of the cruelties of civilization and of barbarism. She is haunted by the past. If only she could remember it.

Tanith Lee is one of those incredible authors who deserves to be far better known than she is.

This is one of her first novels. It’s powerful. Don’t miss this one. Or any of the others she’s written, even if you have to order them used. (Though Norilana Books is now reprinting most of them.)

So much you really don’t want to miss. Like Don’t Bite the Sun, which is science fiction, and mind-blowing.

An explorer's reports from worlds of the imagination …