Review: ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’ by Sarah Rees Brennan

Nick and his brother Alan are on the run with their mother, who was once the lover of a powerful magician. When she left him, she stole an important charm – and he will stop at nothing to reclaim it. Now Alan has been marked with the sign of death by the magician’s demon, and only Nick can save him. But to do so he must face those he has fled from all his life – the magicians – and kill them. So the hunted becomes the hunter … but in saving his brother, Nick discovers something that will unravel his whole past…

It’s been a little while since I finished The Demon’s Lexicon, but life got busy and I haven’t had a chance to review it till now. That means this review might be a little on the short side, but I still remember the highlights.

As far as genres go, urban fantasy is my favourite and my best; you’ve probably guessed that if you’ve read any of my books. It’s also hard to find urban fantasy rather than paranormal romance, and I powered through this book because of that, happy as my dog when he sticks his face in front of the hose. (Just go with me here.)

Here are the things I loved:

Nick. This surprises me, because he’s the sort of brooding leading male that I cannot stand in paranormal romance novels. But because the story is told from his point of view, we get to see inside his head. We see his emotions (mostly fury or bafflement), and hear his thoughts. He clearly loves his brother, but he seems completely incapable of articulating that, or much of anything other than frustration and smart arse comments.

Nick lives in his head, even when it pains his brother, Alan, and when — to the reader — the solution is obvious. He isn’t a particualrly nice character, but he is fascinating. I enjoyed spending time with him in this book (though I definitely wouldn’t want to in real life, and I sure as hell wouldn’t date him). I’m in awe of Brennan for making a thoroughly dislikable character so fascinating.

The brothers. This falls out of the first point. It was so nice to see a portrayal of brotherly love in a book, prioritised far and above the tenuous romance plotlines with side character Mae. Alan and Nick have each other’s backs. For Nick, it has always been that way — Alan has always been there for him.

That’s why the merest hint that Alan might be keeping secrets sends him into a tailspin. It’s clear to the reader (I keep saying that, but there really are two layers to this story — what we see, and what Nick can comprehend) that Alan loves his brother and has his best interests at heart. But poor Nick just can’t see it.

The twist. Boy howdy. I sort of half guessed, but Brennan took it all the way. The ending alone earns this book a whole star on its own.

(The only thing that makes me sad is that I want to buy the second book in the same edition as the first, and it’s currently sold out on The Book Depository. Wah!)

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Review: ‘Awakenings’ by J.E. Shannon

Evie Shepard’s nightmare begins when she finds herself buried alive, with no idea how she got that way. As she struggles to remember what happened to her, she begins to notice changes about herself. Her senses are heightened, her movements are quicker, she is incredibly strong….her heartbeat has stopped. It’s then she makes a disturbing discovery. She wasn’t buried alive. She was murdered.

Somehow she has come back…

And she wants revenge.

I was going through my Kindle last month and discovered this ebook, which I acquired back in 2013 and had never quite gotten around to reading. (For the record, this isn’t the longest a book has languished on my TBR pile. There are books there that have moved house with me. More than once.) It was published by a small press that subsequently tanked under dubious circumstances, though it has since been self-published. The version I’m reviewing is the small press version, so please note that there may be some differences between the currently available version and the one that I have.

Awakenings is an urban fantasy whose subtype isn’t vampires or werewolves but an undead creature called a vengador (which is Spanish for “avenger”). These are creatures that get supernatural speed and strength, as well as electricity powers, but who are driven to kill their murderers, even knowing that doing so will end their own existence. I enjoyed reading about a different type of supernatural beastie.

There were a lot of things I really loved about Awakenings; the writing is generally very good (with a few copy edits that may be gone in the current version), and the story is action-packed, full of explosions, car chases and fight scenes. All good stuff. And I enjoyed both Evie (as she struggles with her loss of humanity) and one of the other female characters, Amie, who is a Russian super-soldier and hacker with a penchant for explosives. I’d totally read a book about Amie; she stole every scene she was in. I adored her.

The villains of the piece were murderous Russian slave traders, which stretched credibility a bit, at least for me. I think that Awakenings is meant to be set in a darker version of the USA (rather than in a parallel world that is roughly the same), but I never really got the real sense of that difference, and the villains seemed Bond-like and almost cartoonish in their evil ways.

But the main thing that made this a 3.5 star read for me rather than a four star read was the unnecessary romance. I just didn’t feel any chemistry between Evie and Ethan. Also, she was seventeen and he was … older. I don’t know how old, exactly, but he’d been married and widowed, and had a PI business. I’m assuming at least late 20s. I don’t mind an age gap between characters who are romantically involved, but when one of them isn’t even a legal adult yet (even if they are an undead with superpowers), it just feels a little off to me. It’s one of the reasons I couldn’t get onboard with the Bella/Edward relationship in Twilight.

Still, I like that the book doesn’t have a sugar-coated, happily ever after ending, and the action scenes were compelling. I’d recommend Awakenings for anyone after a fun summer (or winter) holiday read.


Review: ‘RoseBlood’ by A. G. Howard

In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

This book broke my heart, you guys — and not in an “OMG, so many feels” way. No, it broke my heart in the sense that I wanted it to be so much more than what it was. I’m giving it two stars, which is “it’s okay” in the admittedly terse Goodreads star system. And it was okay. But I wanted it to be glorious.

I was a mad Phantom of the Opera fan in my teens. I haven’t read the original novel, but I have the Susan Kay novel and can sing the musical by heart. The idea of an urban fantasy inspired by the Phantom made me giddy with delight.

The first thing you need to know (and that I wish I’d known) is that, unlike Howard’s Splintered series, RoseBlood isn’t urban fantasy but its kissing cousin, paranormal romance. That means that the romance is the central focus of the plot, rather than a subplot. I’m not generally a huge fan of paranormal romance, for the same reason there aren’t too many pure romance stories that I enjoy. They just aren’t to my taste.

Secondly, RoseBlood uses the insta-love plot device via the mechanism of a soul mate — only in the book it’s referred to by the admittedly pretty phrase “twin flame”. The thing I didn’t find so pretty was that a twin flame was two people who shared a soul. Every time I ready about that, I cringed — not so much because of the cheesiness (although it is a tiny bit cheesy, let’s be honest) but because I couldn’t shake the mental image that the two parts of the soul were going to burst out of the two main characters in a spray of gore like baby monsters from Alien, desperate to be reunited.

(Sorry!)

Also, I found the romance more broadly a little problematic. Thorn, the male in the relationship, has all the knowledge and most of the power, and he regards the whole thing as preordained. At one point he tells Rune that they are destined to be lovers. He watches Rune sleep. Some (especially those who love Edward Cullen) will find this romantic, but I … did not.

Onto the things I did enjoy, the world is gloriously gothic. Rune’s school, RoseBlood, is all creepy props cupboards and chandeliers and secret passages behind one-way mirrors. It doesn’t have internet or cell phone access, increasing that very gothic sense of isolation. I loved the feel of it.

Just don’t ask why it’s called RoseBlood; we never find out, which is a shame.

I also enjoyed Rune’s aesthetic. She’s into handmade clothes and knitting, and has curly brown hair (something we don’t see that much of in spec-fic — I say this as a person with curly brown hair!). She does suffer from being a bit wet in the relationship stakes and doesn’t have the fire I prefer in my heroines, but I suspect that may be because Howard was trying to parallel Erik’s power over Christine in the original story.

Her friends are delightful and I wish they’d been in the book more. As for the Phantom himself, Erik is in the book, although as a largely off-screen menace and (occasionally) tragic figure. Still, in the love/hate balance I came down on the side of hate.

The paranormal element of the book is a little bizarre, but not the weirdest thing I’ve ever read in spec-fic. I won’t go into details, though, because I don’t want to include spoilers.

If you love paranormal romance, heavy gothic atmosphere, lush prose and Twilight, then RoseBlood is for you. If not, I’d suggest checking out the Splintered series instead.

 

 

 


Review: “Once Dead, Twice Shy” by Kim Harrison

My name is Madison Avery, and I’m here to tell you that there’s more out there than you can see, hear, or touch. Because I’m there. Seeing it. Touching it. Living it.

Madison’s prom was killer—literally. For some reason she’s been targeted by a dark reaper—yeah, that kind of reaper—intent on getting rid of her, body and soul. But before the reaper could finish the job, Madison was able to snag his strange, glowing amulet and get away.

Now she’s stuck on Earth—dead but not gone. Somehow the amulet gives her the illusion of a body, allowing her to toe the line between life and death. She still doesn’t know why the dark reaper is after her, but she’s not about to just sit around and let fate take its course.

With a little ingenuity, some light-bending, and the help of a light reaper (one of the good guys! Maybe…), her cute crush, and oh yeah, her guardian angel, Madison’s ready to take control of her own destiny once and for all, before it takes control of her.

Well, if she believed in that stuff.

I had high hopes for this book. I love Harrison’s The Hollows series (I reviewed the first book here if you want to see what that’s all about), and I was in the mood for some YA, so this seemed the perfect fit. It’s always a risk, going into a book with the bar set so high. And I did like it … but not as much as I wanted to.

The first chapter drops you in the middle of things to the point that I double-checked I hadn’t inadvertently bought the second book the series. It heavily references the events around prom night and Madison’s death (mentioned in the blurb), but in a “you should know this” way rather than a “here’s a drip feeding of backstory” way. I discovered when I looked at Goodreads afterwards that there is a short story in a previously published compilation, Prom Nights From Hell, which covered those events. Something to be aware of. I expect that, if you read the compilation first, the start of this book would be less discombobulating.

I didn’t mind Madison as a main character, though she felt a little underdone. Again, I think it was the lack of backstory. For example, one of the elements of character growth that became apparent by the end is that she realises she needs to forge a new life with her dad and stop rejecting new friends because they can’t compete with her best friend at her old school. But her only interaction with her old best friend was that she texted her selfies a couple of times, so I didn’t realise she was rejecting new friends etc till she decided not to do it anymore.

Still, Madison is a pastel goth who has skulls on her shoes and purple hair, and is an amateur photographer. I dug that, as well as her hard-headed determination to not be a damsel in distress.

Barnabas is the light reaper (think: specialised angel) who was meant to save Madison’s life and is now stuck with teaching her how to use the new powers she should be able to access by virtue of … not being dead, I guess? It’s unclear. He looks — and acts — like a broody seventeen year old boy. Ugh. The love interest, Josh, is actually seventeen, and is much more mature. Get it together, Barnabas.

Plot-wise, once I accepted that Madison had somehow managed to evade final death by swiping the amulet, the book wasn’t too bad. I guessed from the first description of the amulets what one of the plot twists was, which was kind of disappointing. But there was another one that I didn’t see coming, which meant the end of the book was more entertaining than the first half.

Once Dead, Twice Shy is a straightforward read that would suit a younger teen (especially one who has read the story that sets this book up!). I gather it’s the first book in a trilogy, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any further. 


‘False Awakening’ release date details

Release date and book blitz

False Awakening, the sequel to my adult urban fantasy Lucid Dreaming, is being released on Saturday 26 August. To celebrate, I am throwing it a birthday party — if you’re a blogger or social media book promo host, you can find out the details and sign up here. There will be excerpts and a giveaway; I’d love it if you could take part.

And if you’re neither of those things, keep an eye out … because giveaway! 😉

Preorder details

The False Awakening ebook is already available for pre-order at a range of retailers; links are below. A paperback will be available, although I don’t have any links for that yet.

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

Book details (just in case you’d forgotten)

How can you fight your nightmares when they’re real?

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.

 


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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