The Better Part of Darkness by Kelly Gay

[info]mardelwanda was kind enough to forward on her copy of The Better Part of Darkness after I’d commented on wanting to try out the book in her review.

The Premise: In this urban fantasy series, the existence of races from other worlds became known when scientists discovered two parallel planes of existence called Elysia and Charbydon. The beings in them have immigrated to Earth and were named goblins, ghouls, imps, sirens, nymphs, jinn, and fae, because those were the closest words people had to describe them. Charlie Madigan works for Atlanta’s Integration Task Force (the ITF) with her siren partner, Hank, to take down any off world offenders.  When Charlie and Hank find Amanda Mott, Charlie’s daughter’s babysitter and friend in a coma-like state, they begin to investigate an off-world drug called ash which is believed to be responsible. Complications arise when the investigation unearths problems that personally involve Charlie and threaten those she loves.

My Thoughts: This is one of those urban fantasies where the heroine has a dark side. Think Dante Valentine in the series by Lilith Saintcrow. The story is in the first person POV and her personality colors the story.

There’s a healthy dose of angst in Charlie’s life. She is a divorced mother whose husband did a really bad thing to get the divorce. She lost a twin brother in a violent way when she was a teen. And she died eight months ago. The circumstances to that death are known, but her resurrection is shrouded in mystery. Charlie has nightmares and notices that she’s different than she used to be. Charlie has good reasons to be angry, but her anger can take over, and that’s where the darkness comes into the story.

To balance some of the angst and anger, Charlie has people who support her like family (her sister Bryn, and parents who are traveling), and friends ( such as her partner Hank). She’s a mom to a tween, Emma. She also meets Aaron, a powerful mage, and Rex, a demon spirit. Yet, while she has so much to protect, Charlie is a heroine who rushes headlong into trouble without a moments thought. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one thinking this: her sister and Hank and everyone else lecture her to be more cautious and to not try to solve everything on her own without letting other people in. I was glad that Charlie finally started listening to them and let them help her when things got worse, but it takes her a least half the book to get there which can give you a bad first impression of her as a main character.

I think that Charlie’s seeing reason helped me a lot with her character but I still had a problem with her. I think my issue was that I still don’t like some of her actions. It began with her impulsive running-into-danger, but I also thought she did things that were wrong and I didn’t believe in her justifications. Despite being someone who is supposed to uphold the law, she uses violence often to get what she wants. I think I expect more when a character is identified as law enforcement, rather than say, an assassin. I can accept killing in self defense for a cop, but killing a random guard in cold blood and they didn’t put up a fight? Torture and humiliation for information? Maybe being a mother trumped being a cop and that was justification. I’m not sure. It made it hard for me to enjoy the story while being uncomfortable with the heroine.

It’s too bad I couldn’t warm to Charlie in the book because I did enjoy the writing and the secondary characters a lot. The side characters all had distinct personalities and depth. I think I was particularly fond of Rex and his sarcastic comments. The world building felt unique and interesting. Justina Robson did something similar in Keeping It Real with the worlds from different dimensions meeting, but The Better Part of Darkness still put a unique spin on the idea. And the plot and pacing felt like it had the right amount of action versus downtime.

A note on the romance. I’d read in another blog that there was a love square in this book. There are quite a few men that Charlie found attractive – many are supernaturally gorgeous, but I didn’t really see anyone as a possible love interest for her. There are hints at first but I don’t think anything pans out. I am not sure where the other blogger was seeing the love square, because I certainly didn’t see it.  There may be something in a later book, but in this one it felt like an urban fantasy without a real romantic element.

Overall: There’s a lot that I liked about this book, but unfortunately I never warmed to the main character, which brought down my overall enjoyment. I would read the second book if I hear that Charlie does some learning from her mistakes.

Buy: Amazon | Powells

Other reviews:
mardelwanda – positive review
Tez says – positive review
Scooper Speaks – “I enjoyed this story more than I thought I would.”
Fantasy Dreamer’s Ramblings – 5 out of 5 stars

Seraphs by Faith Hunter

Seraphs is book 2 in the trilogy of Thorn St. Croix, stone neomage in a post-apocalyptic era, where mankind has dwindled, seraphs from heaven come down to smite sinners, and demons do exist.

I read book 1 (Bloodring) and reviewed it here.

From this point on there may be possible spoilers for Bloodring.

 

 

In the first book we get introduced to the complex world – Thorn was hiding her neomage status because her kind is generally feared and hated by humans, and being raped and killed is a real possibility for her. I don't think I was alone when I thought that the reason for this wasn't clear, but in the second book, some history is revealed that explains this extreme hatred. By the time Seraphs starts, Thorn's identity is revealed and so Thorn must deal with the reaction of the townspeople, but she has some friends on her side too, and so there is an uneasy tension at the start of the second book.  Meanwhile, the demons that live under the nearby mountain (the Trine) are constantly attacking and getting bolder, and Thorn is haunted by dreams of seraphs and a cherub still trapped with them. Thorn has already successfully fought the the demons, but that seems to be a mere battle in an ongoing war – they seem to have some plans that require capturing or killing Thorn.

Bad things: OK, I have to admit – I kept reading this series because I felt somewhat confused by the first book and I wanted to understand what was going on. Unfortunately, while a couple of things make more sense now (the strange hatred for neomages), others still do not (really what's with the mage lust?). I feel like I really had to make myself finish this book, because it felt like we were seeing the same thing happening in book 1 as in book 2 and I felt like I wasn't really getting anywhere in terms of seeing the big picture.  What I saw was Thorn's limited viewpoint of this world – and since she never got a full education from her enclave, she doesn't know many things about her magic, so as in book 1, there is a lot of detailed descriptions of Thorn experimenting with different stones and discovering things, but this doesn't seem to really make the story progress. It got very tedious to read about every stone Thorn touched in great detail. Following this is one fight after another, again, not much progress – just because there's action doesn't mean that the plot is coming along. Finally towards the end do we get an idea of larger mechanations going on, both by Thorn's associates and by the supernatural creatures around her, but by that time I was dissatisfied by the slow progress, and it was too little too late. I felt like the mystery of apocalypse and the seraphs would be more delved into, but it seems like the author is content to leave that a mystery, at least in this book. On top of this, I found it a bit off-putting that it seems like Thorn was becoming this over-idealized woman – fighing the dark, saving the town, going through hell, but still men want her. The only ones not interested are the gay ones.  But what's annoying - I sense that this isn't going to go anywhere anyway, so what's the point of it?

Good things: As I mentioned when I read book 1 – it seems like the visual details of the world are well thought out, as is the use of stone by Thorn in her magic. The strong points in the book would be the descriptions, I had a very clear idea of what was happening and a visual in my minds eye of many details (maybe too much sometimes – I'm not sure it was necessary to describe what every person was wearing to Thorn's trial). Also the creatures that populate this world are fascinating – the host of angels, terrible and beautiful, the half-human races and their limitations, the demon lord and his minions, the succubi and incubi.

Overall: It's a fascinating world, but the plot meanders slowly, and in the end, the second book felt much too much like "second verse, same as the first". It looks like I'm in the minority with feeling disappointed, because I see a lot of positive reviews, but it isn't working for me. I would probably bail from this series now, but I already have book 3, Host.

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The Touch of Twilight by Vicki Pettersson

I barely made it in time for this book to come out! The Touch of Twilight should be in bookstores tomorrow – May 27th. This is the third book in the Sign of the Zodiac series and I got an ARC from Eos books for promising to review it.

My Vicki Petterson reviews:

Book 1 – The Scent of Shadows

Book 2 – The Taste of Night

Short Story in this world - The Harvest

The signs of the Zodiac series is a dark series with a comic book, Frank Miller feel. The rules of the world are many, and there is a lot for the reader to accept, but I think that once you do, you have a gritty and compelling story that's enjoyable to read, if you can handle an angsty tale.

I would not recommend reading any of the books in this series out of order because the world and plot is quite complex. Actions that happen in earlier books have consequences two books down, so someone reading the series in the middle will find themselves lost.  

The Touch of Twilight continues the story of Joanna Archer, new member of the Las Vegas Zodiac Troop on the side of Light. She's found out that she's a superhero but she's come into the knowledge much later than her peers. This means she's constantly learning about the supernatural world and making a lot of mistakes. And with a bloodline of both the Light and Shadow, Joanna is being courted by the Shadow troop who believe that the third sign of the Zodiac is the rise of her Shadow side. Meanwhile, Joanna is still dealing with the manipulations of Shadow member Regan, and the reprecussions of her decisions in book 2. Thrown into all of this is the sudden appearance of an otherworldly entity that is after Joanna and who scares even the Tulpa, leader of the Shadows.

As I've said before this is a dark urban fantasy series – it often pulls me emotionally when I read these books, because there is a lot of death and loss involved. I think it speaks volumes about the writer that these books can affect me emotionally it is as much the development as Joanna's character as the writing.

Joanna Archer is an imperfect heroine who does a lot of unlikeable things and makes decisions that I felt were wrong. It's the fact that she keeps trying to make up for her mistakes and her ultimate goal is to do good that keeps me reading. I want there to be a good resolution to her story, but it's a dark story, so I'm not sure if that's going to happen, but in book 3, I felt like Joanna is slowly making progress. She's more comfortable with the world of the Zodiac and all the rules involved with her new powers and she's learned from some of her earlier mistakes. For instance this time she stops trying to hide things from her troop, which was the cause of a lot of distrust and problems before. As with earlier books Joanna's past is also a huge part of her life – a traumatic event when she was a teenager makes it understandable why she can't let go of certain people in her past. Her childhood sweetheart, her sister's memory, her missing mother, her emotionally distant "father" are all people who have an influence on Joanna even during their absence. So I think that because I felt Joanna start to move forward from this past in book 3 (even though it is slow), that I found The Touch of Twilight to be my favorite Zodiac book so far. Not to say that everything is resolved and to my satisfaction – but some things do start to fall in place. I'd like to see Joanna at a point where she can move on from her past and I think it's happening. There is also some interesting developments on the ongoing love triangle (I know who I'm rooting for, but I don't expect Joanna to make a decision soon). I can't wait to read book four, but I'm not sure when it will be out! Next year I suspect.

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The Taste of Night by Vicki Pettersson

I put the top five books I wanted to read in my suitcase when I went on vacation and it seems like I made good choices.  The writing in all the books was at a certain level of goodness – I don't have complaints that with any of them (Wolf Who Rules, Taste of Night, Beyond Varallan, Dead Girls Dance, and The Devil's Right Hand (which I'm still reading)). Just an observation. So all my reviews for these books are not going to be ranty in that regard. Though I did say I was a bit disappointed in the plot of Wolf Who Rules. Plot is different.

So the Zodiac series is about superheroes amongst us. In every city there are 12 people representing the 12 characters in the Western Zodiac (Sagittarius, Taurus, Libra and so on) on the side of Light, and 12 on the side of Dark. In book 1 Joanna Archer finds out that she belongs to the Las Vegas Zodiac troop. In book 2 she knows more about this new world, but has a lot more to grasp. There are a lot of rules involved here, for example:

1) These people are all born at midnight on the day of their star sign

2) Power is passed down generationally on the mother's side, and only one person can occupy a slot in the Zodiac.

3) There are three life stages, the first two are human and the third happens on the eve of their 25th birthday when they become superhuman and able to smell emotions and each others unique scents (so there is a lot of chemical scent changing happening and plastic surgery to hide identities).

4) Everyone gets a special sign on their bodies, a glyph, which glow when their enemies are near.

So some of these rules require suspension of disbelief. For me the most questionable was the comic book angle. In the Zodiac series there are people who psychically receive what's going with the battle of Light vs. Dark and write comic books of what's going on (and their promoting of the story creates belief in humans which gives the signs their power), Light can't read the comic books of the Dark and vice versa, and that this goes on in every major city with a population large enough for this. I thought about this for a while and decided if you can't see it as a graphic novel in prose-form there may be problems for you and this series.The comic book store was a little odd, but I think including it did make me associate the book with being a written graphic novel (Frank Miller's graphic novels come to mind). And I also think that the whole Zodiac system is centered around "belief" – I started to notice it was a strong force in the story, after all the leader of the Dark Zodiac, the Tulpa, was created out of thin air from the belief of a human who spent 15 years thinking him into existence.. wonder what this means? Hmm.

When I reviewed The Scent of Shadows, the first book in the Zodiac series, I said that this is a really angsty, tear you apart story. Mostly because there was a lot of characters watching people they loved die and not being able to stop it and a brutal rape is recounted. Book 2 had this to a much lesser extent. There is still angst though, and the deaths and rape are mentioned a few more times (I wasn't a fan of this aspect of the story. The rape. Though it's an integral part of the plot and Joanna's motivation). In my review of book 1 I mentioned having to put the book down to process the emotions. The main character, Joanna has issues – she's still very much ruled by vengence and what happened to her in the past, and in this book you see the frustration that the troop has with her. Her issues stop her from thinking things through and from being a team player. I felt that sometimes she was just unlikeable – particularly when she interacted with her troop and had an attitude. Like her treatment of Chandra (I thought these two were over this by the end of book 1, but on it goes), or her yelling at Tekla. Is this an illustration of Joanna's Dark side?

After reading this book I'm still not sure where the story is going to go. It's so complicated and everyone has their own hidden agendas. I'm sure that there are more things we don't know yet as a reader about the world too. Also the books are dark, and the heroine isn't untouched by that. I need to digest and process what I read in these first two before I can continue onward with the story. Which may be a while – I'm sure when book 3 comes out or what it will be called.

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The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson

Joanna Archer is one of the daughters of a rich Las Vegas mogul – Xavier Archer. While her sister Olivia is a blonde socialite whose character is sweetness and light, Joanna is the dark and brooding sister – a traumatic event has separated her from others and colored her view of the world. Olivia is loved by Xavier, Joanna is not. Their mother, Zoe, left mysteriously many years ago, and as Joanna's birthday comes around, people start to approach her, and she becomes aware of a hidden war between dark and light which may have something to do with her mother's disappearance, and definitely has something to do with Joanna.

The Scent of Shadows is a book I'd classify as dark urban fantasy. It's set in Las Vegas, there are monsters and heroes and superpowers in it and there are a lot of horrifying and violent elements to it as well. I think the series I'd compare it to in the darkness scale is maybe Lilith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine series. This book wrung me out, but I did find the ending somewhat satisfying and I am looking forward to book 2, The Taste of Night.

(On an aside: the creepiest death scenes I've read in a book for the past few years was in Tamara Siler Jones' Ghosts in the Snow. Eeeek, I needed breaks after each murder. Of course, I am squeemish.)

In The Scent of Shadows the violent bits were not as gorey as the book above, but there was also a lot of emotional pain to deal with on top of it.  It's told from a first person perspective, and I could just be ridiculously sensitive, but I had to put the book down then pick it up and continue when I was ready. To tell you the truth, it's not uncommon for me to put a book down to process what I just read for all kinds of reasons, but with this book it was about processing emotions. The heroine, Joanna Archer, goes through anger, pain, loss, heartache, treachery, vengeance.. and I was emotionally invested. Basically, Joanna's emotional state was well written.

The world building was slow at the beginning and then revelations came in doses as Joanna seemed to be kept in the dark about many things until she absolutely had to know. The explanation of the Zodiac is something that will probably continue on to the next book. In this first book, I understood the gist, and some major points about their powers and their life cycles, but really knowing their history and why they exist is still unclear to me. Joanna is still a fledgling to this world so it makes sense she doesn't know everything yet, and I hope to learn more about "superhero" training and more about the good guys and bad guys in the next book. I thought the comic book explanation was a little odd, but that's a nit. My favorite part of the world building was the scents - the ability to smell emotions and even thoughts. Luckily for me, this was a major part of the Zodiac world.

This book was also long - 455 pages, which I'm not sure everyone will like. It did feel long to me when I was less than a hundred pages in and was still wondering what was going on. I think it really stopped mattering to me after a certain pivotal scene at Olivia's apartment. After that, I could have read forever.

Overall an engaging, gritty story with an ass-kicking heroine. Worth a read if you like something a little dark.

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Bloodring by Faith Hunter

Bloodring
Faith Hunter

This is a story that centers around Thorn St. Croix, a neomage hidden among humans in a post-apocalyptic world. The book blurb calls it a "ambiguous apocalypse" because while seraphs have descended upon the world and mass genocide occurred, followed by a continuing war against dark beings, life seems to be going on. Now the survivors aren't sure of what the Divine Powers expect or what religion is right; they all live in an uneasy peace, following strict rules against sin (or the seraphs could exact vengeance) and in fear of demons that live underground and DO exist.

Thorn is a mage whose powers are from stone, and she's pretending to be human because for some reason most humans hate and fear mages. Humans will turn into a murderous mob if they found out who Thorn really was. Most mages are protected from humans in enclaves but Thorn cannot do so.

 The story starts when Thorn's ex-husband is kidnapped under mysterious circumstances and Thorn is determined to find him. A cast of interesting friends and acquaintances surrounds her at her store – Thorn's Gems, who form a family that help Thorn even though they are unaware of her powers.

THOUGHTS: Overall the world was fascinating so I enjoyed the book. 7/10

Good things: I found this to be a very well-imagined and detailed world. I could see the scenes very well, especially the cold weather and ice (nice to read about when it's summer). It also felt like Hunter spent a lot of time thinking about the way Thorn's magic worked and how different stones worked differently for a stone-mage: chants to get magic working, shortcuts, and how magic is taught to the mages, and there was a lot of thought about the history of the apocalypse, and about different species in the world – mages, humans, and seraphs. Sometimes the details were hard to keep track of (Thorn's amulets were described particularly often) – I found this page @ the author's website helpful and interesting after I finished the book. Another thing I liked was the side characters were pretty interesting and well-written, especially the interaction between them. There is a sense of history and shared memories between her business partners and I could believe the relationship and reactions of the characters.

Less good things: I had a lot less questions answered at the end of the book than I expected. Really big, obvious questions that I expected to have answered were not. I know one biggie that other readers commented on was.. why do humans hate mages so much? This is the one out of them all I most wish was answered in this book. Another one I had was - why is there this weird "mage-lust" between Seraphs and mages, but they are not allowed to mate? Many times in the book Thorn goes into throes of lust. Amazon reviewers compared it to Laurell K. Hamilton's "ardeur", but this book does not have the sex all over the place that Hamilton does (point to its favor). Still.. what's up with that? Finally (Hunter did this several times in the book) – Thorn notices something and then she'd "forget", or it seemed important for a second but she moves on. What is this stuff she keeps forgetting? It usually does not get referenced later on! So because of all these questions, Bloodring did not feel like a standalone book and even though there is sort of an ending to it, it has a huge "to be continued" feeling and I have to go get the sequel now because I'm still quite confused.

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