Dark and Stormy Knights anthology

Anthologies are basically perfect reading when you KNOW you’re going to be interrupted by relatives. With that thought in mind, I picked this one up while on vacation in Sedona and read it in between all the madness of the Christmas season. (Yes, I know it’s been a few months since Christmas.. still working on that review backlog).

Dark and Stormy Knights
edited by P.N. Elrod

Dark and Stormy Nights is an anthology of 9 urban fantasy stories with the theme of “knights” who do some questionable things for the right reasons. So basically urban fantasy heroes doing what they usually do, which is work in the grey area. I liked that the theme is so wide open, and that the anthology had a bunch of authors I have read and liked. Here’s a breakdown of what we get, followed by my brief (non-spoiler) impressions of each:

  • A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews (also found in a 2-novella ebook here)
  • Even Hand by Jim Butcher
  • The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher
  • Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine
  • Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod
  • Beknighted by Deidre Knight
  • Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson
  • Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow
  • God’s Creatures by Carrie Vaughn

A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews – Kate Daniels, a member of the Atlanta Mercenary Guild is offered a bodyguard job when two of her peers back out. This is a prequel the Kate Daniels series, which means it doesn’t require you to know anything, but fans of that series will enjoy learning the back story on how Kate met Saiman, a minor but unique character. I always understood that Saiman creeped Kate out from the beginning, and why that is is explained here.  Lives up to what I expect from Ilona Andrews, currently my favorite writing duo. Link to an excerpt

Even Hand by Jim Butcher – A powerful man agrees to protect a woman and child against a supernatural pursuer. This is set in the Harry Dresden universe, except the narrator is John Marcone. I haven’t read any of the Harry Dresden books, but I gather this narrator is not Dresden’s ally. He’s not a good guy, but he does have his own set of rules, and it was refreshing to hear a story from a character on the other side and who is sharp in a scary way. This was another strong story in the anthology and really hit the sweet spot in character development – I just loved the ambiguity in this one.

The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher – This is a story about a weary hunter named Ryder Ward who kills Beacons – people who (through no fault of their own) attract monsters called Terraphages into our world from another dimension. The latest Beacon is a young girl with a single mother and Ryder feels wretched about his choices. This sounds like an original story though the Terraphages sound like the Synestryn of Butcher’s Sentinel Wars series. Although Shannon K. Butcher is known for her paranormal romance, this didn’t go there (although it did feel like there was the set up for it). There was something about these characters that I didn’t warm to – I think they just felt very standard issue: single mother in a small town, adorable child, tortured hunter, but I felt like there was a spark for something more there if this was a longer story.

Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine – This is another story that didn’t feel set in a bigger universe, but I really enjoyed the world building which was nice and comprehensive in such a small space. It’s about Lisel, a centuries-old woman warrior who has managed to survive and become the last living Dragonslayer, and she’s just been informed that her successor has been chosen (by the pope, as these things are). A young girl knocks on her door the next day. I loved this one for the characterization and dialogue. The grumpy old-school Dragonslayer (“Get your ass inside”) viewing the new guard with exasperation (“glowing with youth and vitality and health and a smart-ass attitude”) but having to train her anyway and maybe gets proved wrong was a fun concept. One of my favorites.

Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod – The Internet tells me that Dark Lady is part of the Vampire Files universe because its narrator, Jack Fleming is the star of that series. This didn’t bother me, all I needed to know was that Jack was a vampire, owns a nightclub, and on occasion helps out people, and this was explained in the first three sentences. This was a very noir-style story with a damsel in distress, a mob boss, missing money, and thugs galore, set in 1930’s Chicago. What I liked about this one was that there were surprises and a puzzle which is unexpected for the story length. Link to an excerpt

Beknighted by Deidre Knight – An artist named Anna gains a patron in order to pay for “living gold” which she needs to unlock a man from another world through her artwork, but there’s something that makes Anna question her patron’s motives for backing the project. This was another story that had more of a paranormal romance tint to the writing than an urban fantasy one. I found the concept of the living gold, Artist Guild and patrons in the context of artists actually “unlocking” things within their paintings interesting in theory, but the execution was confusing. It could be a reading comprehension fail on my part, but I just had trouble connecting some of the dots.

Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson – Skamar is a woman made flesh by the focus of her creator, and her job is to protect a certain teen girl. This means investigating the abductions of girls around her age, working with a human, and dealing with human emotions. This is just as gritty and violent and a little bit heart rending as the rest of the Signs of the Zodiac series, and it focuses on side characters, but I think it would be a little difficult to follow the concept of the Zodiac, tulpas, and who Zoe Archer is unless you’ve read other books in this world. One of the darker stories in this collection.

Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow – A suburban wife comes to Rookwood, asking him to kill her husband, who is already dead. This is another short story of the pulpy vampire detective variety, except a more modern-day version and a damsel in distress who is a lot faster on the uptake than she might be given credit for. I liked the plot of this one, but I wish the story would have been from Mrs. King’s point of view instead of focusing on Rookwood’s interpretation of events.

God’s Creatures by Carrie Vaughn – Cormac is called to deal with a killer that has gutted some cattle. It is clearly a werewolf losing the battle against bloodlust, and it won’t be long before it moves to human prey. This is another story set in a bigger universe (Kitty Norville), but Cormac is a secondary character and on a side trip so you don’t need to have knowledge of the series to understand what is going on here. The concept of hunting a werewolf was straightforward, but God’s Creatures adds a human element and ambiguity to the whole enterprise that I liked. Link to an excerpt

Overall: As urban fantasy anthologies go, this is probably one of the strongest ones I’ve read. The reason for that is there seemed to be a concerted effort (for the most part) not to lose the reader with world building details they wouldn’t know. I think we’ve all read stories set in a world related to an author’s series and been lost before. It seemed like most of these were written from the point of view of a side character, or set the story before their series begins, or are original stories not related to some bigger world. This made things more accessible, which was refreshing to see. Also keeping things cohesive: no romance and stories that all kept with a theme of doing deeds for the “greater good” that don’t always leave our heroes looking entirely pure. A very solid lineup.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Temporary worlds book reviews – “although there are a few stories that didn’t work for me, I feel as if the good content outweighs the bad in this anthology”
Calicoreaction  – Worth the Cash: “On the whole, it’s a very solid anthology with stories that stand on their own two feet even if they’re set in established universes”

Running Scared by Shannon K. Butcher

I was sent this book for review from the publisher.  This is a paranormal romance series about a war between Sentinel races who protect our world from the monsters (the Synestryn) who wish to overrun it. Each book focuses on a Theronai (one of the Sentinel races) warrior and his search for a compatible woman with the ability to siphon off his power and keep him from becoming a soulless killing machine.

My reviews of the first two books:
Book 1: Burning Alive https://i2.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/vox.png
Book 2: Finding the Lost https://i2.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/vox.png

The Premise:
In this third installment of the Sentinels series, Lexi, who was introduced in the first book, believes the Sentinels are the bad guys and have kidnapped her friend Helen (the heroine of book 1, Burning Alive). She’s devised a plan to get Helen out and destroy the Sentinel stronghold. A new group is introduced called the Defenders of Humanity. They are humans who are fighting the Sentinels and think the Synestryn are their pets.  Meanwhile Zach wants Lexi and has no idea of her real motives.

Read an excerpt of Running Scared

My Thoughts: Lexi was introduced very early on in the first book of this series, Burning Alive, which focused on her friend Helen and on the Theronai warrior, Drake. Lexi was a waitress at the cafe where Drake first found Helen and took her away when the Synestryn attacked it. Lexi grew up knowing about the Sentinels but believes incorrectly that the Sentinels are horrible killers. When Lexi met Drake and his warrior buddy Zach at the restaurant she flees for her life.  Unfortunately Zach thinks that Lexi is the woman who can keep his soul alive, and so he’s been desperately searching for her, which only heightens her fear that he wants to kill her. Finally after months of running, Lexi wants to rescue her friend Helen who she thinks the Sentinels have brainwashed and uses Zach to get to her friend, and to finally destroy the Sentinels.

I was looking forward to reading this romance because Lexi seemed to be more of a tough character than the first heroine, Helen. My first impression was that she knew how to take care of herself and to survive alone. In Running Scared, I think she keeps the distrusting persona around.  She holds on to her walls for much longer than the other two heroines, which I found believable, but there were some places where her actions didn’t feel consistent, particularly in the beginning of the book. I just don’t understand how Lexi can say that she doesn’t trust Zach, and she fears him to the point that she’s quaking, but she also finds it hard to keep her hands off him and thinks of him in a sexual way? Perhaps this is supposed to show that deep down, Lexi feels the connection with Zach and it wars with her hard held beliefs, but it read as shaky logic. I would have believed the attraction more if her fear had at least started to go away. I noticed similar situations in the previous books where I felt that the heroine would do something that seemed to go against what I’d learned about their situations up to that point.

The narration is in the third person point of view, but there were a lot of shifts to other characters (more than in the previous two books in my opinion).  Butcher cleverly interweaves her main story with that of side romances and other story arcs that keep the reader hooked to this series. I think I was ready to read Lexi and Zach’s story right after book 1, but instead Butcher focused on another couple while dropping tantalizing hints about Zach and Lexi’s romance (Zach would appear haggard and desperate in front of the other couples, and the story would focus on Lexi running from him for a few pages before returning to the main story). The author does it again with a couple that was introduced in the second book, Finding the Lost,: Nika (the sister of book 2’s heroine, Andra) and Madoc (a Sentinel who helped find Andra and Nika). I’ve been sucked into their story and I think their romance is next in Living Nightmare. In the meantime, we’re also treated to reappearances of characters from the first two books and their ongoing stories: established Theronai couple Gilda and Angus who are going through a difficult time, the Sanguinar and their plans (they’re fighting their extinction), and the evil machinations of the Synestryn. Because of the cutaways from the main story to other developing story arcs, I would say you do have to read this series in order or you will find yourself a little lost whenever side stories get their focus over the main romance.

Overall: I’d put down this series as one tailored to those who like their heroes to be strapping and heroic with heroines sought after and cherished. There’s an eighties action movie vibe – it’s sheer entertainment.  There’s definitely an addictive quality to these books, and the ongoing subplots are becoming very interesting, but the characterizations can be shaky (YMMV). Running Scared is probably the strongest book in this series so far, although I’m very interested in what happens to the next couple (Madoc & Nika).

Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Lush – 3.5

Finding the Lost by Shannon K. Butcher

This is the second book of The Sentinel Wars by Shannon K. Butcher. I was sent these by the publisher, Penguin, for review. This series is about a race of warriors who protect the human race and the world from monsters called the Synestryn.

My review of Book 1, Burning Alive can be found here: https://i2.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/vox.png

The Premise: When Andra Madison was a teenager, her family was attacked by monsters. Ever since then, Andra’s been caring for her sister Nika, the only surviving member of her family who has been so traumatized, she needs constant care in a mental institution. Now Andra makes her living by saving kids who are taken by these monsters. Paul is a Theronai, one of the Sentinel races, who has been searching for a woman that has the right bloodline to be his companion. The Theronai fight against the Synestryn, but it’s been a difficult battle because their race is getting older and their women are extremely rare. If Paul doesn’t find the right match, his soul will perish, and he will become a monster himself. Paul is looking for such a match with Logan, a Sanguinar (sort of vampire), and Madoc, another Theronai warrior, when they find Andra fighting the Synestryn. Somehow Andra has the right bloodline to be a possible match.

Read an Excerpt of Finding the Lost here

My Thoughts: This book has less set up than the first book, Burning Alive, because it’s assumed that the reader knows the world and what’s been happening. There’s references to the Theronai and the Synestryn monsters without having to go into detail about them. I thought this was a positive.  In the first book there was a lot of explanation about what was going on which didn’t need to be delved into again here. Instead it gets straight into the action and more time is spent on some of the longer running story arcs which will be ongoing throughout the series. On the other hand, this means if you haven’t read book one, you will be lost, so I recommend that if you want to read this series, you start with the first book, Burning Alive.

The heroine in this book is a fighter since she’s been killing the Synestryn and saving children for many years. I liked that her focus was on her sister and helping Nika get better. It made her a sympathetic character and it made her motivations for going to the Theronai stronghold so that they could see what was wrong with Nika, believable. Andra already knows about the monsters, so compared the the heroine in the first book, she doesn’t need much convincing about the existence of inhuman races that fight the evil creatures. At times however, I thought she could be a little too accepting and hardly blinked an eye at some of the concepts that should have been new to and strange to her. For example – the idea of magic through the bond with Paul. She doesn’t question that it’s possible and tries it out for herself, easily mastering the concept. It pushed on the boundaries of my disbelief that although her first try exhausted her, only a day or so later she is doing so much more with it, based on a couple of sentences of instruction.

While Andra was a very different heroine from the first book, I thought that Paul was really similar to the first hero, Drake. Except for a lost love that makes Paul more careful in his relationship with Andra, the two warriors were practically interchangeable in my mind. There wasn’t as much character development for the men as there is for the women.  As in the first book, there’s more over-the-top male protectiveness from all the Theronai men (“It kills me to see you suffer”) melded with a tragic hero image.

The heat level in this book is higher than what I normally read. There are a couple of marathon sex scenes in here which corresponds to what I’ve come to expect since reading the first book (two pages just on a kiss, so extrapolate that).  For those who like a steamy sex scene, this book will deliver.

Again, I seem to like the secondary characters and story lines more than the primary ones. The secondary character of Madoc, a Theronai warrior who is hiding the fact that his soul really is withering away, was more interesting. Madoc’s romance is suggested but I don’t know if his story is sequel bait or not (there are a lot of Theronai men introduced that I suspected as sequel bait). Meanwhile the story of Sybil, who I found fascinating in the first book is expounded upon here and I liked where it went quite a bit.

While I liked this book a bit better than the first one, it suffers from some of the same flaws. The biggest issue I have is that the story can be overwrought and sometimes it feels like things are put in there for dramatic effect, but they don’t make much logical sense. I already went into the way Andra used magic, but here’s another example: the hero and heroine mutually thinking that they are not worthy of each other. Anara thinks she’s at fault that her mother and two sisters were attacked by monsters and she couldn’t save them. This doesn’t make sense, how was she supposed to save them from a bunch of monsters she knew nothing about? It makes even less sense that her failure at protecting the people she loves is the reason she pushes Paul away. Everyone she loves gets hurt, so she should push him away. She says this consistently, yet suddenly changes her mind in a very convenient moment.  Meanwhile, Paul tries to make Andra stay with him with his power, until he stops himself. Andra forgives him immediately without even getting angry about it, yet anytime she says she can’t stay with him, he’s convinced it’s because he did this bad thing. It was just silly.

Overall: I liked this book better than the first one: Andra was a stronger character than the first heroine, and Paul was a more honest hero, but I have big reservations about the level of drama that’s injected into the story, which made things lack believability.

Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Lush (positive review)
(let me know if you’ve reviewed this book and I will link to it)

Burning Alive (The Sentinel Wars, bk 1) by Shannon K. Butcher

I received this book for review from the publisher so I could catch up on the series for the release of the newest book, Running Scared which comes out in May.

The Premise: Helen Day has a horrible fear of fire because she’s always had visions of being burned to death while a man watches on and smiles. One day she’s at the local diner with friends when sees the man in her vision sitting a nearby booth, and inadvertently gets his attention. The man Helen fears is Drake, a warrior and member of the Theronai race, one of the Sentinel races that are fighting a secret war against monsters called the Synestryn. The Theronai are slowly dying. They’re getting older, Theronai women are rare, and the race has become infertile, but Helen somehow lessens the constant pain Drake is under and Drake is desperate.

Read Chapter 1 of Burning Alive

My Thoughts: At the start of this book, there’s a lot information about the world of the Theronai and their battle against the Synestryn that the reader and Helen don’t know. It takes a while to get some of the information and in the meantime, Helen is confused and afraid. Of course it doesn’t help matters that Theronai blood draws the horrific Synestryn to them, and Drake and his friends have to protect Helen and her friends at the diner. Helen along with her friends, an elderly school teacher, and the waitress, Lexi fight them every step of the way.  Helen believes her vision and so she’s terrified of Drake.

Helen’s fear of fire was understandable. She’s had her visions for a long time and they are very real to her. The story often brings up this fear as a stumbling block for her and she freezes up, unable to continue when she encounters it. I know I should feel for Helen, but most of the time I found myself wanting to sympathize, yet not being able to. Instead I felt exasperated, especially when her freezing up leads to harsh consequences for others. Helen’s low self-esteem in her looks didn’t help either. The combination of her constant fear and hang-ups disappointed me. I prefer reading about heroines who have more confidence than Helen does.

Drake was even harder to connect to than Helen. He’s a strong warrior who loves his brothers-in-arms and has the weight of decades of killing and of his body’s pain on his shoulders. He is desperate and willing to omit some truths to make Helen his (When I discovered this, he didn’t win any points from me), but I didn’t know much else about his personality.

Even though there are pages and pages of sex scenes which were detailed and explicit, I the relationship didn’t interest me. I felt like there was way too much telling over showing, and we’re in the heads of the hero and heroine a lot yet I wasn’t gleaning much besides the superficial from it. I was being told that Drake thinks Helen is so beautiful and told that Helen thinks Drake is so strong, but it didn’t mean as much to me as being shown why they had those qualities and why he and Helen were right for each other. All there seemed to be was the “soul-mate” concept that is used here – the concept of the Theronai and his mate. And that too bothered me (the soul-mate idea in romance often does). The story suggests Helen has free will and there are other options besides Drake, but the plot really gives her very little choice, so I ended up feeling like they got together because of physical and practical reasons, not emotional ones.

There are secondary characters who were on the page for small moments who had more impact than the main couple. I liked Sybil, who was a truly alien character, and Gilda, the powerful Gray Lady lived up to her title and was ambiguous character.  I also liked Lexi a lot – she fought back and acted quickly during stress, unlike Helen, and Zach, the Theronai who desperately searches for Lexi suggests that there will be a sequel for the two of them (looks like the third book) which I’m more interested in reading.

I found the concept of the strapping warriors of the Theronai and their fight against monsters, their life trees on their chests with leaves that fall as they age, and the souls of who they kill in their swords, a little hokey, especially at the beginning of the book. The names – Theronai, Synestryn, Gerai, Sanguinar (a sort of vampire race), Athanasia, didn’t help either. That aside, the story became more complex as the book went along and the author probably has a bigger story arc planned that will span several books. Even the “good” guys aren’t what they seem.I think a few characters introduced here will reveal hidden agendas and we’ll also find out more about what the enemy Synestryn are up to. It could be an interesting story if I could warm up to the characters more. I hope that the next book has a couple I can connect to better because it’s waiting in my TBR.

Overall: This paranormal romance ended up being a miss for me. There is potential in the underlying story arc over the course of the next few books, and there are a couple of intriguing characters, but in Burning Alive I wasn’t invested in the primary relationship and had to push myself to keep reading. I hope I connect better to the hero and heroine in the next book.

Buy:
Amazon | Powells

Other reviews:
The Good, The Bad, and the Unread – C
Babbling about Books and More – C
Book Binge – 4 out of 5