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”

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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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Holidays Are Hell by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Marjorie M. Liu, and Vicki Pettersson

Holidays Are Hell
Kim Harrison

I reviewed the first of these anthologies, Dates from Hell over here. This is the second one which is in the same vein as the first – urban fantasy, some paranormal romance going on, with an added holiday theme.

For the most part I liked this anthology better than the first one. I think it was all on the "good!" side except for one story.

"Two Ghosts for Sister Rachel" by Kim Harrison. In Dates from Hell we got a story about Ivy set before she meets Rachel, and in this story, we get a story about a young teen-aged Rachel before she ever joins Inderland Security. I thought this was well done because you don't have to have read the Rachel Morgan books to understand the world (much less confusing than the story in Dates from Hell), plus there are a lot of new things to learn for those who read those series. We learn about Rachel's family dynamics, and about Rachel's reasons for joining IS. I was also surprised to see how different Rachel is physically in this short story than what I was used to seeing in the series, but her stubbornness and trying to do things seemingly beyond her abilities seems very familiar.

"Run, Run, Rudolf" by Lynsay Sands. If you look at the link to the first anthology, and check out the "Claire Switch Project", this is a continuation of that short story. A couple of scientists gets zapped by a "destabilizer ray" that allows them to shapeshift if they concentrate really hard. I thought that story was goofy and I think this continuation is equally so. The scientists from the first story rebuild the ray in their basement and the same mad scientist from before (John Heathcliffe) zaps Jill with it. The characters sound like caricatures, and because Jill's keeps losing concentration during shapeshifting, she keeps conveniently being naked in public and flashing the man she's interested in (at least three times!). I rolled my eyes a lot. I have checked out reviews from this book and surprisingly this was many people's favorite story so I don't know.. I may be crazy or something when I say this was my least favorite of the bunch and it did not fit in with the rest of them.

"Six" by Marjorie M. Liu. I think this one is a stand alone, unconnected to an outside series, and it manages to have great world-building, action, characters, and plot in a short space. Six is a elite Chinese agent trying to track down terrorists when she stumbles upon the paranormal – vampires – not the western myth I'm used to reading about, but the Chinese version – Jiang Shi. This was a refreshing twist. When I was a kid and camping for the first time, a Singaporean boy scared me to death telling me about the Jiang Shi. I couldn't sleep all night imaging them hopping over to kill me! Seriously – cold sweats. Anyway, Six also meets a man named Joseph who fights these vampires, and who has some special abilities and they start working together. Possibly my favorite of the bunch because I liked the setting – urban China. Liu has several romance novels out but I really like her urban fantasy. I also enjoyed her short story in the Wild Thing anthology – that one was about a woman with living tattoos over her body which protect her but will eventually kill her, and that's going to be a series called Hunter Kiss.

"The Harvest" by Vicki Pettersson – Another one based in the world where a series is set. This is the story of Zoe Archer – the mother of the protagonist in the Signs of the Zodiac series, Joanna Archer. I thought this was a great side story to go with the series which fills us in on the motivation of Zoe's mother as well as learning about her personality and how she was able to do what she did. But, if you haven't read this series, I'm not sure how lost you would be reading this story. It's possible the answer is – quite lost. Though there are several hints that explain the world, the Zodiac world is very complex so it's hard for me to say how confused someone would be. Definitely a must-read for a Zodiac series fan though.

P.S. This one shall be tagged with my butt shot cover tag. I'm not a fan of the shoes on this cover but ok, it's holiday-related. Also – I noticed that this cover is so similar to another Kim Harrison cover – For a Few Demons More the mass market paperback (same pose – woman in dress walking with knife on the left side of the cover). Odd.

My TBR is around 120. Eek?

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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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