Review: ‘Out of the Shadows’ by Ashlee Nicole Bye

Nobody ever said death would be easy…

From the streets of Melbourne to the bowels of Westminster, the delicate balance between life and death that is so painstakingly maintained by the reapers of The Order of Dark and Light is being tested by the return of an ancient threat. Tensions are rising within the hidden world of The Shadowlands and if this threat is not contained war will be inevitable. And the destruction of the human world is bound to follow in its wake.

Amidst this tension, eighteen year-old Sachi Manning is struggling to cope with the grief and guilt that has plagued her ever since her best friend was murdered six months earlier—that is, until she spots him seemingly alive and well and being held at scythe point by a hooded figure who looks more like a GQ model than the Grim Reaper.

Sachi shouldn’t be able to see through the glamours that shield Shadowlanders from the human world, so the reaper in question wants some answers. And so begins the craziest couple of weeks of Sachi’s life as she is drawn into a world of mysteries, magic, monsters, and mayhem, encountering dragons, faeries, soul-sucking demons, not-so-grim reapers, and even the Horseman of Death.

With a mix of heart, humour and hair-raising action, Out of the Shadows is the adventure of an afterlifetime, perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare and Kresley Cole.

The first thing I should note is that I received a copy of this book free in exchange for an honest review. Those who’ve read my review policy know that I don’t normally agree to such requests, so when Ashlee approached me I quietly snuck away and read the first couple of chapters of the book on Amazon before committing to anything. Just in case. 😉

I’m glad I took the chance, though, because I loved Out of the Shadows. Sashi’s world is amazingly complex, full of supernatural creatures, competing factions and a complicated process for managing what happens to souls when they die. It’s mostly set in Melbourne, and I loved the Aussie touch (although the reapers, the main supernatural faction to which we’re exposed, can teleport, so there are scenes in New York, London and elsewhere — it’s a bit like Paula Weston’s Rephaim series in that regard).

Sashi, the main character, is Australian-born but with Japanese ancestry. She is tiny and fiery and quick with a joke. Her voice was one of my favourite things about this story — she had me giggling more than once at one observation or another. For example, it’s a bit of an urban fantasy trope that supernatural leading men are all ripped hotties. At one point, Sashi actually calls some of the lads out on it, asking if there’s a pill or something, subtly undercutting the trope while leaving the eye candy safely intact for our reading pleasure.

My other favourite character is the reaper Moss, again just because he is hilarious. He and Sashi quite often have movie quote exchanges, and every T-shirt he owns has a funny line on the front. Given my own T-shirt collection, I approved. (Oh, and Beelzebub, Prince of Hell, is hysterical too, in a “I suspect he’s unstable and might start killing folks at any moment” kind of way.)

I know I’ve talked a lot about the humour, because it was one of my favourite things about the book, but I should also mention that Out of the Shadows has its darker moments. There’s a supernatural conspiracy going on, one with a body count and a reach that I can only guess at from the first book. There are plot twists I didn’t see coming, and one exceptionally sad and shocking moment that was a dagger to the old feels.

I approve.

For those wondering about the quality of the writing itself (always a valid question for small press and self-published works), I can confirm that Ashlee writes beautifully. I did see a handful of places where I’d do something different with commas, but they are the sort of things that only a sharp copyeditor is likely to notice … and I’ve seen books published by traditional presses with similar mistakes.

The only reason this isn’t a five-star read for me is that occasionally I got a little overwhelmed by the number of different factions. I was able to track the characters fairly easily but, because I read this as an ebook, I couldn’t easily flick back to earlier to remind myself of the differences between all the different types of reaper, for example.

Still, the confusion was temporary and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. I’m very keen to read the next instalment in the series.



Review: ‘Autumn Bones’ by Jacqueline Carey

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Fathered by an incubus, raised by a mortal mother, and liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, Daisy Johanssen pulled the community together after a summer tragedy befell the resort town she calls home. Things are back to normal—as normal as it gets for a town famous for its supernatural tourism, and presided over by the reclusive Norse goddess Hel.

Not only has Daisy now gained respect as Hel’s enforcer, she’s dating Sinclair Palmer, a nice, seemingly normal human guy. Not too shabby for the daughter of a demon. Unfortunately, Sinclair has a secret. And it’s a big one.

He’s descended from Obeah sorcerers and they want him back. If he doesn’t return to Jamaica to take up his rightful role in the family, they’ll unleash spirit magic that could have dire consequences for the town. It’s Daisy’s job to stop it, and she’s going to need a lot of help. But time is running out, the dead are growing restless, and one mistake could cost Daisy everything…

Anyone with a very long memory will recall that I was looking forward to Autumn Bones releasing in 2014. More than two years later, I finally read the thing — though I don’t know why I didn’t read it sooner. I’m easily distracted by shiny things, I guess!

Autumn Bones is the second in the Agent of Hel series by brilliant fantasy writer Jacqueline Carey. I read the first, Dark Currents, back in 2012 and loved it (but that was before I was regularly reviewing books so I can’t link you a review, sadly). Of course, before starting Autumn Bones I couldn’t remember much about the series except for the fact it had a main character named Daisy who was half demon.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that you can read Autumn Bones as a standalone book if you get the opportunity; you’ll be able to follow the story just fine. Daisy’s voice is such that she has a way of reminding you about things in a chatty way that makes you feel like she’s catching you up on her story over a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It’s one of my favourite things about the book, honestly. (Also, she and her friends compare themselves the Buffy and the Scooby Gang, so you know they’re speaking my language!)

The other is the fact Daisy has a tail. Which is apparently very sensitive; she likes it when it’s scratched.

On that note, Autumn Bones is adult urban fantasy, but — despite Carey’s other books being quite, erm, intense — goes pretty light on the sex scenes. They do happen, but they are either glossed over or are described but in a very general way. We’re not talking erotica here. (Honestly, I was a tiny bit disappointed … but that says more about me than it does about the book.)

I’m not a usual fan of the love triangle story device. In this instance the book has something closer to a … love square? But Daisy is an old-fashioned and relatively wholesome girl, despite her ancestry, so it’s mostly that she notices other guys — we’re not talking orgies* or affairs or anything. It’s more that there’s the man she’s had a crush on since she was in school, who likes her but can’t hook up with her for family reasons. There’s the hot biker ghoul that she is attracted to but generally keeps it professional with. And there’s her actual boyfriend, who is fun, albeit related to some rather unsavoury types.

(*Except that one time, in the opening chapter of the book. But she’s there to break the orgy up, not take part. And she’s mortified by the experience; there’s a lot of “ew” from her, which made me giggle.)

You might be wondering about the clash between Daisy being the daughter of a demon and the fact she’s named Daisy and says “ew” at orgies. It’s because her mother didn’t set out to summon a demon; it was an accident, and once she got pregnant she set out to raise her daughter to be a good person. As well as the tail, Daisy wrestles with strong emotions — strong enough that things tend to get creepy around her if she gets mad enough — but she has been taught that to give in to the demon side of herself would fracture the wall between earth and hell, which is a lot of incentive to stay on (or at least adjacent to) the path of righteousness.

As a reader, part of me really wants to see Daisy embrace her inner demon, though. I’m imagining it’d be like Elsa in Frozen, except with fire. I’ll bring the marshmallows!

Ahem. Anyway. The story in Autumn Bones is a little meandering, and is sometimes slow-paced, especially towards the start. There weren’t any earth-shattering plot twists, but I enjoyed the story and was entertained nevertheless. I’ve already ordered the sequel, which I gather is the last book in the series. (Noooo!)

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Four-and-a-half stars


In case you missed it, last Thursday I was over at Aussie Owned and Read, talking about starting a story right.

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Review: ‘Darkness Unbound’ by Keri Arthur

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The fight against darkness rages on for the next generation—in New York Times bestselling author Keri Arthur’s exciting new series set in the world of the Guardians.

Being half werewolf and half Aedh, Risa Jones can enter the twilight realms between life and death and see the reapers, supernatural beings that collect the souls of the dead. But she soon makes a terrifying discovery: Some sinister force is stealing souls, preventing the dead from ever knowing the afterlife.

Reapers escort souls — not snatch them — but Risa is still unnerved when a reaper shadows her in search of someone Risa has never met: her own father, an Aedh priest, who is rumored to be tampering with the gates of hell for a dark purpose. With the help of her “aunt” — half-werewolf, half-vampire Riley Jenson — and an Aedh named Lucian who may have lost his wings but none of his sex appeal, Risa must pursue whatever shadowy practitioner of blood magic is seizing souls, and somehow stop her father . . . before all hell breaks loose.

I had a vague idea that this was the first book in a series set in a world already established by a previous series. But, because it was the first book, I figured I’d be safe not to read the other series first. I was only partially correct in that assumption.

Keri Arthur’s world is … complicated. By way of example, her main character, Risa, is the daughter of a woman who is a cloned werewolf psychic consultant to celebrities; her father is an Aedh (a spirit being roughly akin to an angel). Her housemates and business partners are a horse shapeshifter who is a powerful witch, and a half-werewolf with pyrokinetic powers.

I managed to wrap my head around that part, but then you have all of Risa’s “aunts” and “uncles” (who I thought were really her aunts and uncles until towards the end of the book, when I realised they were her mother’s friends, presumably from the first series). They include half vampires, werewolves, guardians and I don’t even know what else. There were so many names and supernatural backstories that they blurred together. But I found once we got past the cameos and associated info dumps and I decided it didn’t matter, Darkness Unbound was an easier read.

The other thing I had to put to one side was that Risa is a bit of a Mary Sue character: gorgeous, with a selection of awesome superpowers and scad-loads of money. She even describes herself as “obscenely wealthy” at one point, and she had her housemates co-run a successful restaurant. I found her a little hard to relate to, because she never seems to really struggle for anything in her day-to-day life (and her restaurant income doesn’t seem to explain her alleged wealth). Again, this might be a symptom of the second-generation nature of the story — maybe her mother and the aunts and uncles already did the struggling so that Risa could benefit? I don’t know.

All of that being said, I still gave Darkness Unbound three stars, which is “I liked it” on the Goodreads scale (which I use because I’m lazy!). There are redeeming features in the story itself: there are bad guys with dastardly plans that Risa gets drawn into investigating. There’s a fair amount of shirtless eye candy (although a baffling lack of regular humans given the story is set in Melbourne!). Risa does get her ass handed to her on occasion, but she is also competent and quick-thinking when she gets into a jam, and can kick a decent amount of butt in her own right. That’s my favourite kind of heroine, so she gets points for that too.

One thing I should point out that didn’t bother me but that may not be to everyone’s taste is that werewolves in this world have the morals and sexual drive of a cat on heat. It may be related to the moon being full? I wasn’t clear on the details, but the upshot is that Risa is part-werewolf and casual sex is a thing. (I gather she has also used male werewolf sex workers in the past to satisfy her lusts — I personally like that girl power angle!) There’s even an orgy at one point. We’re not talking “Anita Blake later in that series” numbers of sexual encounters, thank goodness — it’s not the point of the story by any means. But the sex scenes in Darkness Unbound are explicit to the point of being erotica.

The last quarter of the book is where things really pick up pace and get more interesting, and that’s what saved Darkness Unbound somewhat for me. But there is less closure than some might like. The plot involving the “gates of hell” mentioned in the blurb is obviously the meta-plot for the series, and — although some questions are answered and there’s a twist that I found motivating (if not that surprising as it was well foreshadowed) — there are a lot of threads left unresolved.

If you’re looking for a complex urban fantasy world with some steamy sex, then I’d recommend this series. Actually, no, I think I’d recommend the other series first. That way this one will be less of a shock to the system.

(Edited to add: Goodreads tells me the first book in the original series has a lot more sex than this one … if that influences your decision-making one way or the other! 😉 )

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Three stars


Book announcement: ‘Lucid Dreaming’ sequel coming in 2017

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I’ve posted so many reviews lately that recent followers of my blog might be forgiven for thinking that’s all I do here. But, despite appearances, I have been slowly beetling away for the better part of the year on the sequel to Lucid Dreaming, my adult urban fantasy. I’m about half a chapter from “the end” — the goal is to have the first draft done before Christmas, if I can overcome the distractions of the silly season.

It’ll be a near thing.

At this stage, the plan is for Lucid Dreaming and its sequel to be a duology — a two-book series. The goal is to release the sequel in the middle of 2017.

So, what can I tell you about this sequel?

The title!

Well, first off, there’s the title:

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Source: Image Chef

Yes, False Awakening — inspired by that phenomenon that is “a vivid and convincing dream about awakening from sleep, while the dreamer in reality continues to sleep”. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The blurb!

I can also share an early version of the blurb (although this one is subject to change once my lovely editor finishes her maternity leave!).

“Sometimes I have nightmares where I dream I’ve woken up, and then I start attacking people…”

Melaina, half-human dream therapist, just wants her life to return to normal. Yes, her Oneiroi father is in prison and, yes, the place she worked burned down, but she has a cute boyfriend and a new house. She beat the bad guy. She’s earned a break. Right?

Unfortunately for Melaina, people are still getting possessed by nightmare spirits; the police are investigating her past; and the bad guy’s brother, the Morpheus himself, is coming to town to demand answers. When a deranged ex-nurse checks himself out of hospital on the same day her cousin runs away from home, Melaina is dragged into a fight not just for her life but for her soul.

Also, note — if you’re a Goodreads user, you can add False Awakening to your “to read” shelf. You know, if you want to.

The sale!

To celebrate, the Lucid Dreaming ebook is on sale for $0.99 (US) at the following websites.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Australia
Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo

Tell your friends!

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Not the book cover — I don’t have one of those yet. But it is pretty! Source: Shutterstock


Mini-review: ‘Rampant’ by Emmie Mears

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Gwen Maule is Edinburgh’s hero. She’s got a new job for a boss she actually likes, and by night as Shrike she singlehandedly keeps her city’s crime rate at an all time low. But now Rosamund Granger has escaped custody and is killing people across Scotland. Desperately trying to get ahead of the murders, Gwen discovers that Britannia are not as gone as she hoped — and their newest plan will soak the earth in blood.

This is a mini-review, since I only reviewed The Masked Songbird, the first book in this series, less than a week ago. If you’re looking for a new urban fantasy/superhero series, I can’t recommend this one highly enough — but you should definitely start there.

Here are additional things you can look forward to in Rampant, book two in the series:

  • It’s less of an origin story and gets more into the day-to-day of superhero life. Gwen’s superpowers continue to develop in delightful ways.
  • We get to see how Gwen, Taog and Magda cope with PTSD in a way that comes across as realistic without crippling any of them to the point where they hide in cupboards (hi, Katniss).
  • We don’t get to see any more of Angus, which I’m sure is a relief for everyone.
  • We learn much more about Britannia, the organisation of villains (aka crazy cult) that were the baddies in the first book. They are still the baddies in this one.
  • And, hoo boy, are they bad. The death toll is pretty high, you guys. And poor Gwen feels every death, which means we do too.

The only thing holding me back from giving this one five stars is that I found the end a little bit … anticlimactic? A lot of stuff happens, but Gwen is a little bit sidelined in the action, which was unsatisfying because I wanted her to lay out more smackdown than she got to. (It’s hard to be more specific than that without spoilers.)

Still, I really liked this book; I don’t know if Mears is planning on writing more books in this series, but I really hope she does!

Four stars


Review: ‘The Masked Songbird’ by Emmie Mears

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Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonising her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Superpowers don’t make a superhero. Real strength isn’t something you’re born with — it’s something you build.

Emmie Mears is my favourite new urban fantasy discovery for 2016. I devoured her Ayala Storme series and then went looking for more. The Masked Songbird was her debut, but didn’t suffer for it — it has all the hallmarks of her writing, in that it’s action-packed and full of heart.

Despite the blurb, Gwen starts off in a pretty dark place. Yes, she has a boyfriend — but Angus is a manipulative prick one step away from being abusive. Yes, she has a job — but her terrifying boss is clearly a corporate psychopath (and, it turns out, a regular psychopath too) who has it out for her. Gwen’s life is very grey and grim.

That all changes when, in typical superhero-origin style, Gwen ingests an experimental serum hidden in a bottle of soft drink. But not in a “wow, I have powers; I rock now” way. More in a “what the hell is happening” way. She pays a pretty steep price for her powers (I won’t go into details, because spoilers), and gets her ass handed to her at least once because she gets in over her head. Strength does not automatically equal skill, after all.

And, even with her superpowers, it takes Gwen a while to realise she deserves better than what she has, especially with regards to Angus. She suffers from that sadly fairly common delusion that being with a scumbag is better than being single. (Hint: it’s not!) I’m pleased to say that she grows throughout the story and comes to realise she doesn’t need him.

I haven’t read very many true superhero books, though a lot of urban fantasy has the trappings of a superhero story. The Masked Songbird is pure superhero, down to the spandex costume and the crime-fighting. I loved it so much!

I loved watching Gwen’s friendship with her flatmate Magda turn from “friendly acquaintances” into “BFFs”. And Taog (pronounced “took”, apparently — Welsh names do my head in), the kindly and hot next door neighbour, is patient and committed to his beliefs. There is definite tension there, but Gwen resists it, not wanting to cheat on Angus. Hopefully their relationship will develop further in the sequel.

The overarching events that provide the backdrop and the external story relate to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (when The Masked Songbird was originally released). The book is set in the lead-up to the vote, and explores the idea of an extremist pro-UK group, Britannia, trying to suppress the “leave” campaign while scaring the public into voting to stay. I did struggle with how truly evil the Britannia members were at times … but I suppose every superhero needs an evil super-villain. (And there’s no doubt that people have gotten violent over this sort of thing in the past … though not usually without religion being a factor too.)

Oh, I should add: the other thing I really enjoyed on a personal level was the evocative descriptions of Edinburgh. I went there on holiday in 2012 and it was so easy for me to picture the places I’d visited.

I’ve already bought the sequel and can’t wait to get stuck into it. I highly recommend this one.

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Because I read this on my Kindle, I printed out the cover to take a photo with. I didn’t realise until afterwards that it was a different cover. Aargh!

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘Eye of the Storm’ by Emmie Mears

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Earth teeters on the edge of a razor sharp blade.

With the Summit on barely-unified tenterhooks and hellkin bubbling into Earth with no sun to stop them, Ayala Storme has her hard-won family, an uncertain new love, and a team of allies — half of whom have betrayed her in the past.

When the cities of North America begin to fall to demon hordes, Ayala has to fight her way back into Nashville in a desperate hope to save her city. With the witches trying to find the original source of the imbalance that allows hellkin a tie to Earth and the Mediators ready to draw their swords every time they see a shade, time is ticking away.

The witches are working as fast as they can, but what they find may shake the foundations of everything Ayala has ever known — and the answers needed to salvage what’s left of Earth may only lie beyond Earth itself, in the sixth hell.

The battles are over. It’s time for the war.

Eye of the Storm is the fourth and last book in the Ayala Storme series, which is now one of my favourite urban fantasy/alternate Earth series out there. You can find my reviews of the first three books here, but if you need further convincing, I’ll give you some reasons why you should read the series. (Note: You really do need to read the series — don’t jump in at book four and expect to be able to keep track of all the characters!)

Some minor spoilers for earlier books follow.

Eye of the Storm is, as the blurb makes clear, about the arrival of the demon-induced apocalypse. The beginning felt a little awkward to me, in that I didn’t quite follow the reasons for Ayala and her crew leaving Nashville to go back to their cabin in the woods. (That might have just been because I stayed up past my bedtime several nights in a row and missed some crucial piece of detail.) However, once the action gets going, it really gets going.

I enjoy apocalypse fiction, and Eye of the Storm definitely delivered. There is a lot of emphasis on getting back into the city, on bunkering down and surviving, on attempts to work together even though the Summit is divided on how to deal with Ayala’s allies, the shades.

The witches, led by Gryfflet Ashberry, are trying to work out a spell to help them figure out what it is that allows the demons to create portals to Earth. Ayala isn’t big on the research — like I said in a previous review, she’s more like Buffy than Willow (except that both Ayala and Willow are bisexual, of course). Still, she’s involved enough that we get a sense for how his research is progressing — and once it gets to a certain point, she has to take finding answers into her own hands. By that point I’d already guessed what the big reveal/information would be, but I found what she got up to interesting reading nonetheless!

One big point of difference between this and most end-of-the-world stories is that, although we get a lot of monster-splatting action along the way, the book doesn’t end in a big smack-down fight but with more of a “witches’ ritual and epic speech” vibe. I was actually glad of the difference; it wasn’t that the big fight didn’t happen, just that we only got to see parts of it. And since there wasn’t some giant uber-bad to fight — a dragon to slay or whatever — if we’d seen more of it, it would’ve felt a little … samey?

This entire series is fast paced and full of action, sass, tender romance (though barely any sex), strong friendships and splattery fights. There are some swears if that sort of thing bothers you. If it doesn’t, read Ayala Storme. You won’t regret it.

Four-and-a-half stars