The Shadow Thieves of Rouen, by Shawn McGuire

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Author’s website
Publication date – 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Aden is a thief. What is supposed to be a normal job starts him on a path that may affect the history of Europe.

Up against rival thieves, mages and the king of the nation of Europe he must wrestle with his past life, his future love and figure out where his allegiance lies.

Thoughts: This is a review that I had to take a while to really sort out in my head, because the book itself is actually a rather difficult one to rate. I had to really give it some good thought, and at the end I have to admit that the final teacup rating I was forced to give it really doesn’t speak properly to what I found within the book’s pages.

The story follows Aden, a French thief who is hired for a job and quickly becomes embroiled in something far more complex than he could have ever guessed. An interesting cast of characters followed in Aden’s wake, most of whom were decently developed and entertaining to read about. While the book is billed as straight-up fantasy, it seems to take place on an alternate Earth in which North America’s influence on the rest of the world has expanded, overriding traditional customs and culture. This is not stated outright so much as hinted at in various ways as the novel — or rather, novella — goes on.

But outside of the basic premise, that’s where things get a little dodgy, and harder to really pin down my thoughts and feelings on this.

On one hand, it was clear pretty quickly that the book still needed work. I found more than the average amount of typos and grammatical errors that were very distracting, especially in the final quarter of the book. The story suffered in some places, mostly for being undeveloped in some and overdeveloped in others. A good half of the story consisted of Aden and his sudden love interest, and that got rather boring to read when I would much rather bet getting back to the more interesting matters of a guild of thieves, international politics, large-scale betrayal, and magic. Battles were written out as a blow-by-blow, which wasn’t bad per se but really distanced the reader from the action of the battles themselves.

Also along with this comes the personal peeve of seeing yet another story in which two characters fall head-over-heels in love with each other within hours of their meeting. I’ve never liked that, and I doubt I ever will, but it still seems to be a popular thing in novels.

That being said, it’s still very clear that the author has some serious potential with his writing and style. It wasn’t always smooth and consistant, but some of the descriptions and phrases showed good skill with words, and the creativity evidenced by the hints at the world’s political situation are signs that McGuire definitely put good thought into his world-building. So while the book wasn’t exactly great and did need some improvements, it wasn’t exactly bad either, and I saw the potential for something great to come out of it all.

Ultimately, I think the book’s biggest failings were the pacing and length. For a 30k word novella, it was a good beginning to a story but didn’t really get far before it cut off and the reader must wait for the next book. I think it could have benefitted from both tightening the plot and expanding it. It’s a shame to have to say it, because as I said, I can definitely see potential for both the author and the story, but as it stands, those are the main things that I feel would need to have been changed to turn this from an average story to a great one.

(Book provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.)

Touch of Power, by Maria V Snyder

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Author’s website
Publication date – December 20, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Laying hands upon the injured and dying, Avry of Kazan assumes their wounds and diseases into herself. But rather than being honored for her skills, she is hunted. Healers like Avry are accused of spreading the plague that has decimated the Territories, leaving the survivors in a state of chaos.

Stressed and tired from hiding, Avry is abducted by a band of rogues who, shockingly, value her gift above the golden bounty offered for her capture. Their leader, an enigmatic captor-protector with powers of his own, is unequivocal in his demands: Avry must heal a plague-stricken prince—leader of a campaign against her people. As they traverse the daunting Nine Mountains, beset by mercenaries and magical dangers, Avry must decide who is worth healing and what is worth dying for. Because the price of peace may well be her life…

Thoughts: I had seen other books of the author’s that sounded interesting but that I hadn’t been able to read yet, and had heard good things about what she has written, and so when the chance came to read Touch of Power, I eagerly pounced. I’d sad to say that this was not the greatest introduction to Snyder’s work, and I sincerely hope that her other books are better.

The premise itself was fairly creative. The world has been decimated by a plague, and people ironically blamed Healers for starting that plague in the first place. Avry is the last Healer, on the run and trying to keep her identity hidden. She is found, however, by a band of men who abduct her and demand that she Heal their prince of the plague. Avry isn’t fond of this idea. As her journey progresses, we get to see more of the world and the cultures that have been carefully created to be interesting and with enough parallels to our own world that we can relate the the situation that Avry finds herself in.

Healers themselves are done quite interestingly here, too. Rather than merely curing an illness or injury, a Healer takes the problem upon themselves and then heals at an accelerated rate. Some thing do prove too much for them to handle, though, and they bear the scars of injuries healed, sicknesses cured. It’s an interesting form of sacrifice that intrigued me.

So the plot itself wasn’t where I found this book lacking. Rather, it was in the writing itself. Snyder writes mature themes into the story, such as swearing, lust, sex, bloody vengeance, all that stuff, while her writing reads like it was written for younger teens rather than older ones who might better relate to the subject matter. As the book is written from Avry’s perspective, any mysteries encountered are slowly revealed by way of Avry thinking questions at herself and pondering things, not so much hinting sometimes as beating the reader over the head with the answer without ever actually coming to that answer. It does the reader a disservice, assuming that they can’t see half of what’s coming.

Subtle foreshadowing is almost nonexistant. As an example, later in the book Avry comes across a man who doesn’t seem to like her very much, is short of patience, acts a quite secretive about some things, and yet is supposed to be on her side as he aids her in infiltrating the enemy city. At this point in the book, the fact that this man doesn’t instantly like Avry is sign enough that he’s a turncoat, because everybody else seems to show an instant trust and liking to her when they’re good guys, and any bad guys seen at that point have either tried to use her in some way or else made it plain that they disliked her. The execution of the story was too simplistic and at odds with the more mature aspects of the story, making for a few odd read. I honestly had trouble telling what age range this book was intended for. The writing hinted at younger teens, the themes and plot hinted at older teens to adults.

Sadly, this actually turned me away from giving the author’s other books a chance. It was a poor introduction to her work, which is a shame because there was so much potential in the story and I hated to see it executed the way it was. I can’t say I’d recommend this book, mostly because I can’t tell who I’d even be recommending it to. There’d be problems either way.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Waiter Rant, by Steve Dublanica

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Author’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this book, the pseudonymous Steve Dublanica (a.k.a. Dan John Miller) achieves for waiters what Anthony Bourdain did for cooks in Kitchen Confidential. By the evidence of Waiter Rant, not even his seminary classes or job as a psychiatric worker could prepare Dublanica adequately for what he would experience pulling shifts at an upscale restaurant outside New York City. He tells story after entertaining story about customers, co-workers, and bosses who range individually from the imperious to the clinically insane. Along the way, the author-waiter delivers sound advice on proper tip etiquette and the art of getting good service.

Thoughts: Always interested in what things look like from the other side, this book seemed like a perfect fit for me. I’ve had good service, bad service, and utterly indifferent service from people at different restaurants, and I figured it was worth seeing the thoughts and opinions of this person who turned commentary on his work into a book that thousands of people were talking about.

My intuition led me in the right direction.

The author’s candid commentary on the inner workings of an upscale restaurant and all the politics and insanity surrounding it was a wonderfully entertaining read, and more than a little informative. I can’t say that I previously even thought about some of the issues he brought up, both in dealing with coworkers and with customers.

While the author did paint himself as something of a sympathetic figure through the whole tale, he was up front and honest enough to not do that in every instance. He freely admitted that he could be just as much of a jerk as anybody else, took his revenge on cranky customers, and talked trash with the kitchen workers. While I can’t say I approved of some of the things he did, I commend him for being honest about it all, and not making himself seem completely like the poor trod-upon worker whose boss and coworkers were all out to get him.

Though I won’t lie; there were plenty of people who treated him unfairly enough, and for stupid enough reasons, that I wanted to be able to knock their heads together more than once.

This book does more than shed light on the inner workings of the restaurant world, though. Many of the practices shown in here can be transplanted and applied to just about any job. Unscrupulous business practices, manic control-freak bosses, and corporate politics doing more to ruin a job experience than anything else. These aren’t things that only exist in restaurants, and I found myself relating to the author’s situation numerous times even though I have never had a job like his before. I think this is the kind of book that can speak to anybody who’s ever worked in a less-than-enjoyable job, and as such ties many people together in a loose community that they may never have even thought existed before.

Funny, irreverent, honest, and enlightening, this book is one that I can highly recommend to just about anybody. Wjether you close the book loving it or hating it, you won’t be able to honestly say that you didn’t learn something, or that you couldn’t ever relate. Definitely worth taking the time to read.

Nostalgia Friday: Soulmate, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Hannah Snow’s life was perfect…until the notes started appearing. Notes in her own handwriting, warning her: Dead before Seventeen. Then she starts having visions of another time, another life. And of a stranger who tore her world apart.

Now the stranger, Thierry, Lord of the Night World, is back. Convinced Hannah is his soulmate, he has searched for her throughout the years, waiting for her to be reborn. But if Hannah’s destiny is death, can even Thierry’s love protect her?

Thoughts: This used to be my favourite book in the Night World series, tied for first with Spellbinder. I loved the way that reincarnation was approached, the idea that love could follow people through lifetimes, always calling back to each other and finding each other once again, even when both parties could well be vastly different than their previous incarnation.

Reading this book again now, I’m sad to say, ruined the story for me. It was very hard to keep the shine of happy nostalgia going when I found so many flaws.

As stories go, it was something of a creative one, and I can’t fault Smith for that because the idea and ideals fits so very well with the established mythos of the Night World. The reader also gets to see, in a very close-and-personal way, the fabled first vampire Maya, whom we’ve really only heard about in passing back in Spellbinder, when Thea told the legend of Maya and Hellewise. Maya herself was quite an interesting character, carried through the ages by a singular obsession, one that went so deep and was so engrained in her mind that she herself really couldn’t attach any logic to it. “I have to win,” is all that mattered to her, even when it was clear that she didn’t entirely know what her own idea of winning would even mean. It was interesting to see her be so flawed and unhinged and yet so very calm about it all.

However, the biggest problem I had with this book was exactly what I used to love about it: reincarnation. Not so much the concept, but the way it was carried out. Hannah’s first incarnation was Hana, a Stone Age girl living in some place that I’m fairly sure is geographically and anthropologically impossible. She lives in a place where there are Arctic foxes and wild cattle, part of a tribe consisting of people with quite varied hair and skin tones (though it’s established that they’re all at least Caucasian), they worship Hekate as a dark goddess who also seems crossed with a mother goddess figure, and the tribe is run by a matriarch. Her best friend is somebody who “always has to wear something new to every festival” and is fretting because a man she doesn’t quite like wants to “mate [her]”. Sorry, honey, but when you’re in that era and 16, you’re approaching the end of the average lifespan, and you’ve probably popped out a couple of kids already. You’re not a modern teenage girl in a furry bikini.

This all wouldn’t have been quite so painful (the books all deal with hidden aspects of the world we live in everyday, so I might possibly have been able to suspend my disbelief for a while) if the psychiatrist character who was helping Hannah uncover her past didn’t state quite bluntly that the majority of past-life regressions were always told in ways that made it quite clear that the people who romanticized living in the past actually knew nothing about the past they were talking about. I winced when I read that line, because the character was trashing the sort of people who were doing exactly what the author was doing! That entire situation was ironic and painful enough to have a lot of the gloss stripped from the memories of this book, and I’m sad to report that reading this now that I’m older does not have anywhere near the same appeal that it did when I was a teenager.

As far as its place within the series, this is one of the essential novels. A lot is revealed about Circle Daybreak, far more than the hinting mentions that appeared in other novels of the series. And we get to take an interesting look back at Night World history, looking at the characters of Maya and Thierry. If you’re going to read the series, you really can’t afford to skip over this one. But too much sat wrong with me for it to have a very high rating, in light of all the irony and historical mangling.

Briarpatch, by Tim Pratt

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Author’s website
Publication date – September 15, 2011

Summary: (Taken from Amazon) Darrin’s life has been going downhill ever since his girlfriend Bridget walked out on him without a word of explanation six months ago. Soon after losing her, he lost his job, and his car, and eventually his enthusiasm for life. He can’t imagine things getting worse – until he sees Bridget again, for the first time since she walked out, just moments before she leaps to her death from a bridge. In his quest to find out why Bridget took her own life, he encounters a depressive (and possibly immortal) cult leader; a man with a car that can drive out of this world and into others; a beautiful psychotic with a chrome shotgun; and a bridge that, maybe, leads to heaven. Darrin’s journey leads him into a place called the Briarpatch, which is either the crawlspace of the universe, or a series of ambitious building projects abandoned by god, or a tangle of alternative universes, depending on who you ask. Somewhere in that disorderly snarl of worlds, he hopes to find Bridget again… or at least a reason to live without her.

Thoughts: The concept of the briarpatch is an interesting one. A parallel world, or series of parallel worlds, that contain the improbable and implausible, tenuously holding to an existence that few can see unaided. Pratt takes the ‘alternate world’ concept and runs with it in a direction that I don’t see done that often. It’s noteworthy that he not only did this in a way that is believable, following its own rules and reasons, but also in such a way that still even the experts on the briarpatch don’t really know what it is, can only guess at its true nature. While I like understanding the weirder aspects of speculative fiction, I can definitely appreciate it when large-scale things don’t get boiled down to something simple. Reality is a hard thing to understand, even reality as we know it. Why should an alternate reality be less so?

While the characters were not particularly deep as far as development goes, they were still realistically done, so I can’t complain too loudly about them. They were more than just archetypes, but there were times that they felt flat, as though their whole lives were about the things going on between the pages at that time. It kept the reader very centred on current events, however, so this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Still, as characters can really make or break a book, a little more development might not have gone amiss.

Though oddly, it was the characters of Ismael and Echo that were the most developed. Ismael I can see, because he’s a very major player in the plot, trying to reach the light of a better world by exploiting people he himself sends to their deaths. He’s a complex man who has lived for centuries, full of obsessions and quirks and a rich sense of what I can only describe as “completeness.” Echo, too, was one of the more fleshed-out characters, though she existed mostly as Ismael’s tool. She didn’t allow herself to remain a tool, however, and was a powerful opportunist. While I can’t say that I liked her as a person, she was quite an interesting power, and she had a bit of an ethical turnaround while still staying true to her nature.

For all Pratt’s demonstrated creativity in coming up with the details of the briarpatch and alternate realities and how they work, he did commit one of the major writer no-no’s by telling rather than showing. Characters sitting down and telling somebody their backstory, or taking a chapter to explain how they met so-and-so, got so frequent that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a time or two. Once or twice might be excusable. But there were times where a few sentences could have done just as well as an entire chapter, and the interludes took away from the tension of the rest of the story.

Still, I can’t deny that this was a novel that, for all it felt at times like it moved a little slowly, still kept me engaged enough to keep turning pages, wanting to know what happened next, or what new surprises lay in wait for the characters. The book didn’t need to be action-packed to be entertaining, or even to provide a sense of tension, and Pratt showed a good amount of creativity to string the readers along. This might not have been a book I would have gone out and bought sight unseen, but I’m certainly glad that I did take the time to read it, and I can say with certainty that it’s a book that at some point I will probably read again.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 1, 1998

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Dark Kingdom is preparing itself for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy–the arrival of a new Queen, a Witch who will wield more power than even the High Lord of Hell himself. But this new ruler is young, and very susceptible to influence and corruption; whoever controls her controls the Darkness. And now, three sworn enemies begin a ruthless game of politics and intrigue, magic and betrayal, and the destiny of an entire world is at stake.

Thoughts: I first read this book in high school, and couldn’t understand what people were raving about. I mean, it was an okay book, but I just couldn’t see what was so special about it that made so many people quick to call it one of the best books they’d ever read.

Now? I still wouldn’t say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I certainly do appreciate it more now than I did then. It straddles the line between dark fantasy and a fluffy read, easy on the mind without being simplistic, dark without letting itself get bogged down in grit and melancholy. It has much the same feel that a lot of mid-90s fantasy did, which made it a comfortable book for me to fall into when I felt like reading something new yet familiar.

The story mostly revolves around Daemon and Saetan, who, along with Lucivar, revolve themselves around Jaenelle, a young and abused girl who is also Witch, powerful and prophesied. Jaenelle knows nothing of her destiny, only that she sees and hears things that others believe aren’t real, and that the truest friends she has are those who live in other realms. Daemon has his sights set on being her lover, when she’s older. Saetan views her more as a daughter. Lucivar… Well, we don’t really get to see much of Lucivar. He shows up in only a few scenes, we know he’ll play some part in all this, but it isn’t so much mysteriously hinted at as not really dealt with.

Added to all of this is the fact that the politics of the landed are corrupt and brutal. The society being a matriarchal one is not unheard of in fantasy, but the level of abuse that the females in power believe they can inflict upon males is nothing short of abuse in itself. I’ve heard a good many people insist that this portrayal of society is unrealistic and smacks of “girl power gone insane.” In some ways, they may not be wrong. What is worth keeping in mind though is that what Bishop did here is nothing but a gender reversal. If you saw the same situation with males in power and abusing females as their sex slaves, their trophies, it wouldn’t be remarked upon as being unrealistic at all. Bishop did a good job of pointing out gender inequality by doing nothing more than flipping it upside down, less a subtle undercurrent and more of a blatant, “Take that.”

I did have my problems with this book, though, and the setting in which it takes place. First off, many of the Blood characters seem to be inconsistent in their emotions, one moment being cunning and calculating, aloof and powerful, the next throwing hissy fits because somebody won’t do what they say. This did little but make me feel uncomfortable and disgusted, and to little end given that the political and social situation running through the entire novel did that in a far more profound way.

I’m also not a big fan of the ‘dark’ names used throughout the novel. Saetan, Daemon, Lucivar, Hekatah… All allusions to dark figures from various real-world mythologies, and they gave off the feel of “dark for the sake of dark.” That sort of thing never impresses me, and often leaves me with the feeling that the author couldn’t have a character’s dark side stand on its own but that the audience would need a constant reminder.

Ditto when it comes to the sexual aspects of this book. It seemed like the characters took every opportunity to make sexual references, not in the form of bawdy jokes or leers and stares, but in more casual mentions. It wasn’t enough to say that a woman had been broken, or broken by a Warlord. No, we have to have it pointed out that she was “broken on a warlord’s spear.” It seemed needless, and once again seemed like it was trying to be edgy without having a need to be edgy. Really, when a main plot point in the novel is the sexual abuse of young girls, readers aren’t going to be shocked by casual euphemisms.

But in all honesty, when most of the things I have a problem with in a novel are small nitpicky things that don’t actually affect the storytelling or the plot itself, I can consider the book to be a pretty good one. I’m glad that I took the time to revisit Daughter of the Blood instead of letting my decade-old impressions continue, as now I’m quite interested in pursuing the rest of the series. The world that Bishop weaves is complex and many-layered, the characters interesting and not without considerable flaws and foibles. It is, in short, what many fantasy novels strive for and fall short of in their development. It’s by no means perfect, but it is still good, and that’s quite enough for me.

Nostalgia Friday: The Chosen, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – February 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) She stalks the back alleys of Boston, seeking revenge on the vampires who killed her mother. Armed with a wooden stake, martial arts, and the will to resist mind control, she is killing the Night People one by one. But when she rescues Daphne Childs from certain death, she’s suddenly swept into the Night World Slave Trade, gateway to the vampires’ secret enclave.

Thoughts: Vampire hunter meets vampire, and they all live happily ever after.

Rashel decided to become a vampire hunter because when she was very young, she saw her mother and her friend (or possibly a kid her mother was babysitting; I don’t think the book was very clear on just who Timmy was in relation to Rashel) killed by a vampire, and decided some payback was in order. Then one night, on a mission, she runs into the vampire Quinn, and, true to the theme of this series, the two discover that they’re soulmates.

Now, I have to say that Smith did make a point of having Rashel deny the connection at first, refusing to believe she could be so bonded to something she despised so very much. But what really got to me was a scene in which Rashel and Quinn are mentally joined, and she senses darkness and fear in his mind so she (and I’m paraphrasing here) “dances through it kissing sunlight into the dark corners.”

Let me just point out that Rashel has spent over a decade at this point hating vampires with a passion, and being shuffled from foster family to foster family and refuses to form emotional connections, trying to cut herself off from others and keep her emotions cold, her mind removed. I understand that this is teen fantasy with an emphasis on romance, but honestly, I find it incredibly difficult to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that “twu wuv” really heals all wounds in a heartbeat like that. It was trite, and horribly out of character, and it didn’t do anything but make me roll my eyes and wonder if Smith even understood the characters she was creating.

Nyala’s transition from mentally scarred to completely unhinged was also something that felt odd and out of place, like the author just needed a plot device to work in a little more tension.

Many parts of this book felt clumsily executed. Some scenes were powerful and touching, incredibly well done, but for every good scene there seemed to be one that was equally bad, and it made for a very poor experience. While this book wasn’t one of my favourites when I first read the series, my opinion on it has certainly dropped upon reading it again.

This novel also shows how dated it is by mentioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then adding that Rashel “missed the movie.” The vast majority of teens who read this book now will likely only know Buffy as the TV show, and may not even know that the multi-season show was based on and a continuation of a movie in the first place. It’s only a minor mention, but much like a previous book in the series mentioning Walkmans, it’s something that the audience doesn’t come across these days half as much as they used to. The stories are not timeless, and moments like this really underscore that.

Ultimately, I’d have been happier skipping over this book during my series reread, given all the problems I had with it. It needed serious work on the character development, the twist ending made only marginal sense, and it was far from the entertaining read I remember from my teenage years. Sadly, I came away rather disappointed.

The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website
Publication date – January 1, 1995

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It is an age when Valdemar is yet unfounded, its organization of Heralds yet unformed, and magic is still a wild and uncontrolled force.

Skandranon Rashkae is perhaps the finest specimen of his race, with gleaming ebony feathers, majestic wingspan, keen magesight and sharp intelligence. Courageous, bold, and crafty, Skan is everything a gryphon should be. He is the fulfillment of everything that the Mage of Silence, the human sorcerer called Urtho, intended to achieve when he created these magical beings to be his champions, the defenders of his realm–a verdant plain long coveted by the evil mage Maar.

Now Maar is once again advancing on Urtho’s Keep, this time with a huge force spearheaded by magical constructs of his own–cruel birds of prey ready to perform any evil their creator may demand of them. And when one of Urtho’s Seers wakes from a horrifying vision in which she sees a devastating magical weapon being placed in the hands of Maar’s common soldiers, Skandrannon is sent to spy across enemy lines, cloaked in the protective of Urtho’s powerful Spell of Silence.

Thoughts: The Black Gryphon takes us back into the pre-history of Valdemar, into a time when the world of Velgarth was very different from what readers have grown accustomed to. This trilogy was published alongside the Mage Storms books, each echoes of the other since this trilogy deals with the original Cataclysm and the events surrounding it. Most interestingly, we get to see both Urtho and Ma’ar in their original incarnations, as well as gryphons, and the Kaled’a’in before they split into the Shin’a’in and Tayledras (and the lost clan k’Leshya, of course). It’s an interesting look at the origins of what we’ve come to know and love about Velgarth.

It was interesting especially to see Urtho. In previous books, Urtho has been talked about, mostly by gryphons, as being second only to god. They speak reverently of him, which is to be expected given that it’s no secret that Urtho created them all. But here we get to see Urtho unmasked, as a flawed human who happened to have a lot of magical power and creativity. Particularly interesting was the way he kept the gryphons close to him by keeping the secret of their fertility to himself. Now, I can understand and appreciate Skandranon’s anger at finding this out, and finding out that it was a very simple thing, but what I can’t appreciate so much was his utter acceptance of it later on. He likened it to a parent just wanting to keep their children close, and so that made everything okay, because it was done out of love and affection. As though love and affection can never lead down a dark path, can never yield anything that might be bad or selfish. Urtho was a deeply flawed man this way, in his selfishness. I couldn’t help but think it similar to a parent who never teaches their children what food to eat, in order to keep the children reliant on them and their information. It may be done out of a desire to give the kid a good diet and make sure they eat properly, but ultimately it’s a selfish thing that is in no way good. And Urtho didn’t just have responsibility for one gryphon this way. He held the secret to continuing their entire species.

But as much as I disagreed with Skan and Urtho in their reconciliation over this, I have to admit that I did like seeing a man previously portrayed as the ultimate in everything being revealed to be as flawed as the rest of us, prone to anger and selfishness and other stupid human things. For all he did, for all his power, he was still a man.

Conversely, although we’ve seen plenty of Ma’ar in previous books, and although he’s an ever-looming threat in this book, we see almost nothing of him directly. He shows up at the end, simply in order to die and hint that he’ll be back. Granted, a very disturbing scene, but I couldn’t help but feel that Lackey wanted us to fear Ma’ar based on what we’d read in every other book rather than what’s actually happening in this book. In some ways, it worked, because readers of previous books know what Ma’ar is capable of, and that he doesn’t necessarily have to be seen to be felt. On the other hand, he became a nebulous sort of insubstantial fear here. I was more worried about what Shaiknam or Levas would do than what Ma’ar would do, because I knew the inevitable outcome.

I suppose that’s the downside to backstories. You know what’s going to happen in the end, because you’ve seen the future. It’s hard to create tension about a character whose actions you’ve already seen and whose future path is already written.

Interesting, though, and something I didn’t catch last time I read this book, was something that could be taken as a hint that Ma’ar was the one to start the Eastern Empire in the first place. Now, I can’t find confirmation of this anywhere, but he does say that he’s created an Empire that will last long after he dies, and everybody is fleeing into the west to get away from Ma’ar and his influence… Official word says that it was founded by a bunch of stranded mercenaries after the Mage Wars, but wouldn’t have been easier for them to say, “Ma’ar held all these lands before, and he’s gone now, so it’s our turn,” than to start from scratch. There were, after all, a lot of lands united under Ma’ar’s influence… But that’s just speculation and can’t be proven.

But regardless of speculation, and in spite of the few flaws the book contained, it was quite interesting to take a step back in time and see things as they used to be, before Velgarth as we know it was really formed, and to see characters we’ve really only heard tales on in other books. This turned them from legends into very real characters, people who could know as much as we know anyone in any book, and was a lot of fun to see. Definitely a book that fans of the series should take the time to read, even if you really already know how it will end. Just because we know the big picture doesn’t mean we’re familiar with all the little details that make the story and the world so rich and expansive.

Nostalgia Friday: Dark Angel, by L J Smith


Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication Date – December 1996

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Gillian Lennox is saved from death by an angel who becomes her guardian. But after helping her become popular at school, the angels begins to make bizarre demands–enough for Gillian to wonder what she has brought back from the other side.

Thoughts: While this wasn’t one of the best of the Night World books, you can definitely see Smith getting more comfortable with writing the world she’s created, and that alone raises the book’s standing in my eyes. It’s a good thing, too, because while the previous books have all dealt with people who are very much in the centre of the Night World society, Dark Angel deals with Gillian, a rather shy and reserved girl who only discovers that she’s part of a lost witch family thanks to a guardian spirit she calls Angel. The book brushes the edges of the Night World, for the most part, never really taking the plunge, and it makes for interesting reading, and a surprise departure from what I came to expect from the novels.

Gillian meets Angel during her near-death experience, and when he returns with her to the world of the living, he does assume the role of a guardian to her, helping her to improve her life by gaining popularity and the guy she’s had a crush on for years. She learns that popularity has its downsides, however, and in trying to quash somebody’s revenge scheme, she learns from Angel that she is actually a witch and can cast spells, thus leading her to curse the perpetrators of said revenge fantasy. Blindly following Angel’s instructions, though, the curse was out of proportion to the crime, and was the first hint that Angel might not be as divine as she thinks.

Smith does a very good job of showing the balance behind things, and not falling prey to stereotyping, something I see a lot of when it comes to dealing with the so-called “popular crowd” in YA novels. It’s a little cheesy, I admit, but Gillian learns that being popular will not solve all of her problems, but it’s not done in a way that feels over the top. Some people in the popular crowd are there because people fear them too much to show how much they’re not liked. Others turn out to be quite nice people, with problems of their own. Many YA novels I’ve read have the portrayal of popular people as beautiful teens who are nearly always mean under a thin glaze of niceness, with maybe one or two genuinely nice people in the whole bunch, who inevitably become the main character’s close and true friends. There’s more variety shown here, with more instances of people being people, truly varied creatures with more depth than many authors give teens credit for.

The romance was also quite interesting. Angel insists he’s Gillian’s soulmate, and will do just about anything to help her. Gillian is more interested in David, and takes Angel’s advice on how to attract his attention. Gillian even thinks to herself at one point that there’s no denying she loves both David and Angel, each somewhat differently but no less deeply than the other, which is wonderful to see in teenage fiction, especially in a story in which One True Love actually exists.

If it had any great failing, it was that it did nothing to really further the overarching plot of the entire Night World series. It revealed precious little that the previous three novels hadn’t told us, and what it did reveal it did so in passing, and then right at the end. It seemed to have little place in the continuum of the larger story, and much like Daughters of Darkness, it could have been skipped without any great loss to the reader.

Though it wasn’t the greatest book in the series, it definitely did have its good points, and I was pleased to see some real depth to the character, especially when you consider just how short the book is. But as I said previously, it can be skipped without much worry if what you want is to see how the series progresses. “Take it or leave it” is my final verdict, unless you’re a completionist and can’t bear to skip a book in a series.

God’s Demon, by Wayne Barlowe

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Lucifer’s War, which damned legions of angels to Hell, is an ancient and bitter memory shrouded in the smoke and ash of the Inferno. The Fallen, those banished demons who escaped the full wrath of Heaven, have established a limitless and oppressive kingdom within the fiery confines of Hell. Lucifer has not been seen since the Fall and the mantle of rulership has been passed to the horrific Prince Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. The Demons Major, Heaven’s former warriors, have become the ruling class. They are the equivalent to landed lords, each owing allegiance to the de facto ruler of Hell. They reign over their fiefdoms, tormenting the damned souls and adding to their wealth.

One Demon Major, however, who has not forgotten his former life in Heaven. The powerful Lord Sargatanas is restless. For millennia Sargatanas has ruled dutifully but unenthusiastically, building his city, Adamantinarx, into the model of an Infernal metropolis. But he has never forgotten what he lost in the Fall–proximity to God. He is sickened by what he has become. Now, with a small event–a confrontation with one of the damned souls–he makes a decision that will reverberate through every being in Hell. Sargatanas decides to attempt the impossible, to rebel, to endeavor to go Home and bring with him anyone who chooses to follow… be they demon or soul. He will stake everything on this chance for redemption.

Thoughts: Are the demons of hell as worthy of a chance at redemption as a human? Are the souls already cast into hell deserving of a second chance to atone for their sins? Is damnation eternal? And what price will you pay, what will you risk, to change your circumstances?

Barlowe deals with all of these issues in a very literal “sympathy for the devil” tale. The demon lord Sargatanas remembers that once, before he Fell, he was an angel and close to God, and struggles with the realization that he will never again know the peace of Heaven. But rather than resign himself to his fate, he eventually takes up arms, intending first to defeat his enemies in Hell and then make his war against Heaven. He wants another chance, an opportunity to show God that even those who mike the biggest of mistakes are not completely beyond hope.

It’s an admirable goal, and not one often done with actual demons. Added to this is the story of Hani, a soul punished in Hell for sins he committed during his Life. Sins, and a Life, which he cannot remember. He, too, wants his chance to show that even damned souls are redeemable.

“For what is the good of the lesson if one cannot apply what one has learned?”

Neither of them have entirely unselfish motivations, which makes the characters very three-dimensional and realistic. After all, nobody is ever really without their layers. Barlowe builds a fascinating cast of characters, pulling them from lesser-known mythologies and giving them the rich detail they deserve. This book holds demons both cruel and hopeful, disgusting and familiar, the best and worst of anything we can imagine the denizens of Hell to be.

For all the richness this book holds, though, it suffers in two areas, and ‘suffers’ is a very hard word to use here, in context. The first is in its pacing, which I thought rather slow. Barlowe takes his time with the story, creating a level of detail that’s hard to surpass, but it does slow the story down a little. I fully expected that a book about demonic wars would move more swiftly. Of course, this could be a benefit, depending on your preferences. I can’t deny that holding back the action a little allowed for the characters to develop more fully, the landscape to shape itself more realistically, and for the reader to truly fall into a sympathetic Hell to be one with the demonic characters and the land they didn’t choose to dwell in.

The second place the book faltered was (and I hate to say this) by the limited imaginations of the readers. Now, I can’t blame the author for the fact that I had a hard time with this, and it did serve to underscore what I’ve always heard about how readers will automatically impose their own ideals upon characters, especially in terms of appearance, but from browsing the associated artwork on Barlowe’s website, it seemed that most of the characters looked very little as I imagined them. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost is because it’s hard to imagine things that look only vaguely humanoid, and are for all intents and purposes something out of a person’s worst nightmares. So while part of the problem may have lain in a few too-vague descriptions of the demons or the Abyssal creatures, I think most of the problem lay in the fact that Barlowe was writing about things that were very hard to picture in general.

Overall, though, this book was wonderful, rich and provocative, and most definitely not the kind of thing to pick up if all you’re looking for is some light reading. It will challenge you, it will make you think, and it will break your expectations. It’s worth reading, mostly definitely, even if the reading can be a little slow. It’s not hard to see why most of the reviews for God’s Demon are positive ones.