Review: A Murder of Mages

Posted on July 6th, 2015 @ 21:15
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A Murder of Mages (The Maradaine Constabulary, #1)A Murder of Mages by Marshall Ryan Maresca

My rating:

Blurb:

A Murder of Mages marks the debut of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s novels of The Maradaine Constabulary, his second series set amid the bustling streets and crime-ridden districts of the exotic city called Maradaine. A Murder of Mages introduces us to this spellbinding port city as seen through the eyes of the people who strive to maintain law and order, the hardworking men and women of the Maradaine Constabulary.

Satrine Rainey—former street rat, ex-spy, mother of two, and wife to a Constabulary Inspector who lies on the edge of death, injured in the line of duty—has been forced to fake her way into the post of Constabulary Inspector to support her family.

Minox Welling is a brilliant, unorthodox Inspector and an Uncircled mage—almost a crime in itself. Nicknamed “the jinx” because of the misfortunes that seem to befall anyone around him, Minox has been partnered with Satrine because no one else will work with either of them.

Their first case together—the ritual murder of a Circled mage— sends Satrine back to the streets she grew up on and brings Minox face-to-face with mage politics he’s desperate to avoid. As the body count rises, Satrine and Minox must race to catch the killer before their own secrets are exposed and they, too, become targets.

Review:

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Pretty entertaining, in the vein of urban medieval fantasy I tend to favour (as opposed to more traditional “travel” fantasy). Gritty streets, characters with a past and forced to hide secrets that could be so easily exposed, family issues, corruption in the ranks, bureaucracy, a criminal to catch, seedy dealings going on at night on the docks and in warehouses… Yes, I definitely prefer my fantasy tinged with such themes.

I especially liked the main characters here. Each of them had their share to deal with, and couldn’t conveniently ignore what was going on in their daily lives. In fact, it was even the contrary of the “conveniently an orphan” trope: both Satrine and Minox have families. And they’re in their faces. Every day. Whether because they are so many members that you could lose count of them, or because the few left need to be taken care of in more than one way.

Satrine’s deception was motivated by the need to feed her family—her husband was heavily injured, unable to care for them anymore, and she had to deal with the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, it would’ve been easier on them all if he had died, as she would’ve been able to collect her widow’s pension and school her daughters. That would’ve been the easy way out. Instead, she remained fiercely loyal to him, still nurturing hopes thay someday, he’d slowly wake up and become who he used to be again. Should her forgery be forgiven? Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, her motives were clearly born from love, and she still held her own and showed that the only fake thing in all this was a piece of paper: as a former Intelligence operative, she had the right set of mind, and the right skills, to earn her place among other inspectors.

Minox had his own issues to face. I guess his story wasn’t as fascinating as Satrine’s in that he didn’t have the same hurdles to face, in a line of work where women could expect to be lowly-paid clerks or only very slowly climbing the latter. However, there were other sides to his development that were interesting, and could go on being so. Being an untrained mage in a city where all trained (“Circled”) mages spat on him, for starters. People around him knowing what he was, fearing and despising it for him, or choosing to never talk about it. His ability as an inspector was real no matter what, with a black sheep aspect that set him aside, yet pushed him to work hard (cf. the numerous, somewhat freaky cold cases he considered as actually unsolved). One intriguing thing as well was how he somehow appeared as alone among a crowd, his family, due to his character and to his awkward position as a late-bloomer when it came to magic; in fact, he was probably closer to his somewhat crazy/obsessed/depressed/I’m not sure what cousin, with a history of madness running in the family, and the lingering, everlasting question: “Will he turn like our grandfather… and will *I* turn like that, too?”

And no romance! There’s no room for useless romance her, only solid partnership resting on cooperation, skills and mutual respect. It would’ve been so easy to throw in some silly feelings and/or sexual attraction. The author didn’t go that way, which I’m tremendously thankful for. Satrine and Minox have enough to worry about without adding that to the mix.

Maradaine seemed like a teeming place, bustling with various people, some very normal for such a setting, and others fairly quirky, like the mystery-meat pie seller, the street urchins turned bad mothers (or spies, like Satrine), or the butcher with a tendency to immediately throw “sticks” (policemen) out of his shop. All those people contributed to make the city look like a place filled with diversity. I would’ve liked to know more about the mages and their circles, though. I understand this series runs parallel to another one, so perhaps I’d need to read both to fully grasp that side of the world building? I thought there weren’t that many insights into the Circles’ politics, about what their potential feuds would involve (apart from obvious destruction), or about where exactly they stood when it came to the various powers and government type in Maradaine.

The novel also neatly ties up the main crime plot (a little too neatly, considering there weren’t that many clues for the reader to work with, so I didn’t have much to chew on in that regard), while leaving open other avenues for more stories. How Satrine will have to deal with the other inspectors and patrol(wo)men, and balance the dangers of her new job with her family’s needs. Minox’s need to deal with his magic ability, even though he’d like to ignore it. Corruption inside the Constabulary, possibly higher in the hierarchy. And what really did happen to Loren Rainey? Was it an investigation gone wrong, or something shadier? I can forgive the somewhat weak mystery, as long as those get more limelight later.

This is a series whose second installment I’m definitely willing to pick.

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Review: City

Posted on July 4th, 2015 @ 23:21
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CityCity by Clifford D. Simak

My rating:

Blurb:

Intelligent canines in a far-future city preserve the legends and lore of their absent human masters.

Thousands of years have passed since humankind abandoned the city—first for the countryside, then for the stars, and ultimately for oblivion—leaving their most loyal animal companions alone on Earth. Granted the power of speech centuries earlier by the revered Bruce Webster, the intelligent, pacifist dogs are the last keepers of human history, raising their pups with bedtime stories, passed down through generations, of the lost “websters” who gave them so much but will never return. With the aid of Jenkins, an ageless service robot, the dogs live in a world of harmony and peace. But they now face serious threats from their own and other dimensions, perhaps the most dangerous of all being the reawakened remnants of a warlike race called “Man.”
 
In the Golden Age of Asimov and Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak’s writing blazed as brightly as anyone’s in the science fiction firmament. Winner of the International Fantasy Award, City is a magnificent literary metropolis filled with an astonishing array of interlinked stories and structures—at once dystopian, transcendent, compassionate, and visionary.

Review:

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A hard one to rate, for sure. 3.5 stars?

On the one hand, it’s one of the classics of “old science fiction” I’ve always wanted to read—I only recently linked its English title to the French one. And, like many stories written several decades ago, it retains a quaint charm. Science that was prominent in minds at the time (atomic power…). Themes of a better world, of Man evolving into better beings, renouncing the old ways of killing, even of living in cities. Openings towards strange, new dimensions, even though reaching for those would involve a complete change of perception. But also sadness: the end of a world, of several worlds, humanity devolving into solitary creatures, then nothing, leaving Earth into the “hands” or dogs and robots. A sort of paradise, untainted by the concepts haunting human beings… yet here, too, a solitary one, for while the dogs developed their own society, they, too, were haunted by the idea of Man, kept alive by Jenkins, the faithful robot who served the Webster family.

On the other hand, I have to admit that a lot of those were painfully outdated for a 21st-century person. I’d probably have appreciated these stories more if I had read them when I was much younger—in other words, especially when it came to all those “atomic” thingies, back when I still had recollections (although heavily filtered through my child’s eyes) of Chernobyl, and a vague fear of the Cold War. I would’ve missed other themes, for sure, but maybe some of the “scientific” ones wouldn’t have struck me as so wobbly. Granted, this was unavoidable; a lot of SF classics would suffer the same fate. It did bother me to an extent, and that was really too bad.

The biological side of science here didn’t make much sense either: mutants; people turning themselves into creatures adapted to life on Jupiter; ants developing a kind of clockwork/steam power; dogs being given words and voice while still forced to rely on robots for want of hands (why would surgery on vocal chords translate into heavy genetic changes in just a few generations?). And generally speaking, the Earth described in “City” was just too big, too empty, to justify the maintainenance of robots as a whole (no factories were mentioned, for instance), with the passage of thousands of years emphasising the “how did they manage to last for so long?” question.

And yet, I cannot deny these stories, as well as the way they are linked, a certain power. Not in the writing itself, not in the obsolete or weird science, but in how they conveyed strong feelings. The despair of one man, whose fears doomed humanity to lose an important philosophical theory that could’ve changed the world forever. The end of a city, abandoned by people who preferred to live in the country, an echo of the suburbian dream. Men left behind and choosing to dive into endless sleep in the last surviving city, forever enclosed within countermeasures long forgotten, for there was no point to staying awake anymore and kill their boredom with hobbies become meaningless. Robots performing tasks even after their owners had died and gone. Dogs keeping a promise, passed down from a long-dead ancestor, a promise the meaning of which had been somewhat lost. Man, both the god-creator and a legend in which dogs only half believed.

It *is* definitely strange, for the human characters were not particularly striking. I guess the book managed to tell what it had to tell through other means, among which the dogs and Jenkins?

So I could not wrap my mind around the nonsensical science… but the feelings were here, and kept coming back at me, along with reflections on what it means to be human, on what humans could d/evolve into. And although this wasn’t my favourite read of the year, it will stay with me for some time no matter what, and I would still recommend it.

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Review: Black-Eyed Susans

Posted on July 2nd, 2015 @ 22:12
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Black-Eyed SusansBlack-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

My rating:

Blurb:

A girl’s memory lost in a field of wildflowers.
A killer still spreading seeds.

At seventeen, Tessa became famous for being the only surviving victim of a vicious serial killer. Her testimony put him on death row. Decades later, a mother herself, she receives a message from a monster who should be in prison. Now, as the execution date rapidly approaches, Tessa is forced to confront a chilling possibility: Did she help convict the wrong man?

Review:

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

4 stars. This is the first time I read anything by this author, and I admit that when I picked it among my ever-growing pile of ARCs to read, I didn’t even really remember what it was about. Which was probably for the best, as comparisons with other authors (such as often seen in blurbs) sometimes affect me in a negative way. You know, the “this is the next X”, or “X meets Y in this breathtaking novel.” So I was able, for once, to approach a story without remembering that. And it was good.

The novel deals with Tessa, the victim of a serial-killer, who survived and managed to send her would-be murderer to jail, where he’s waiting for the death penalty to be applied. Years later, now a mother with a bubbly, cheerful daughter of her own—a daughter who’s as carefree as the pre-killer Tessa—she is still haunted by those memories, or rather by the lack thereof: no matter what, she still can’t remember everything from her ordeal, and what she remembers of it may or may not be the truth. Moreover, Tessa’s starting to have second-thoughts: what if the man about to die was an innocent, and the real psychopath still out there?

“Black-Eyed Susans” deals with several interesting themes: psychologic and physical trauma (Tessa after the “event”), lies (what was told and untold when it came to the trial), forgiveness (the man on death row), fear (being potentially stalked by the actual killer, or even seeing him target the daughter)… There are very likeable characters, like Charlie, and others who sow constant doubts as to their loyalty and real intentions. There came a moment when it was difficult to tell what was only in Tessa’s mind, what was triggered by other people’s delusions, and what may have been actual happenings—although I still managed to narrow down my suspicions regarding to the killer to two, then one person relatively soon.

This book also has two things I really like: an unreliable narrator, and a narrative switching from present to past to present again. While the latter can be a deal-breaker for some readers, I personally like that technique. It made it tricky to determine where were the turning points, while at the same time giving hints. Some of those were just a tad bit heavy-handed, but… Overall I liked the story overall no matter what.

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Review: The Red Mohawk

Posted on June 30th, 2015 @ 22:16
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The Red MohawkThe Red Mohawk by Anonymous

My rating:

Blurb:

Everything seems peaceful in the small town of B Movie Hell until a mysterious serial killer in a skull mask topped with a red mohawk shows up and starts butchering the locals. Government agents Jack Munson and Milena Fonseca are sent to track down and eliminate the masked psychopath. But as they soon discover, the residents of B Movie Hell don’t want their help. This is a town like no other, and the locals have many dark secrets….

Already a hit in France and Germany with film rights optioned by Tobey Maguire’s Material Pictures, The Red Mohawk is a fun, outrageous and bloody thriller full of cinematic references and homages to many cult movies.

Review:

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An entertaining novel, one that follows closely in the footsteps of a (bad) slasher movie, indeed—so I would advise to read it as a parody, and not take it too seriously, even though it deals with a serial killer and, well, plenty of dead people. It’s full of references to 70s and 80s movies and music, of tropes constantly played upon (the FBI agent with a bottle problem, the small town setting with its lot of people all knowing *something*, the serial killer escaped from an asylum…), and there’s no doubt that this could be easily turned into a movie as well, since its format is basically the same.

There’s lots of humour, lots of gore as well, and action of the cheesy type, that made me snicker on a regular basis. The characters are mostly stereotypes, obviously, but at least everybody gets their share of it: even though at first, I thought “my, the women are all underdogs here”, the guys don’t fare better, and end up the same way. The asylum part was definitely funny in a sort of gross way, as doubt was sown as to who was actually running it, and a certain FBI agent decided to show an inmate who was the boss. It’s… special, but it still made me laugh.

There *is* a plot, too, in spite of the apparent whatever-goes road the story takes at first. It’s not just random killing here and there. The Red Mohawk does have a plan and an objective, and let’s say there’s method to his madness.

An issue for me—which may have been an issue with my copy, but is perhaps still in the published book—was the half-done editing. I noticed too many mistakes and typos (affect instead of effect, grammar mistakes, repetitive expressions) that kept pulling me out of the story. While I enjoyed the latter, the writing style itself wasn’t that great. Also, the story seemed to peter out a little by the end, as if it was being rushed to its conclusion.

Nevertheless, in spite of the issues in style and editing, this novel provided me with a hefty dose of fun. 3.5 stars out of 5.

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Review: Thirteen Days of Midnight

Posted on June 28th, 2015 @ 10:06
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Thirteen Days of MidnightThirteen Days of Midnight by Leo Hunt

My rating:

Blurb:

When Luke Manchett’s estranged father dies suddenly, he leaves his son a dark inheritance. Luke has been left in charge of his father’s ghost collection: eight restless spirits. They want revenge for their long enslavement, and in the absence of the father, they’re more than happy to take his son. It isn’t fair, but you try and reason with the vengeful dead.

Halloween, the night when the ghosts reach the height of their power, is fast approaching. With the help of school witchlet Elza Moss, and his cowardly dog Ham, Luke has just thirteen days to uncover the closely guarded secrets of black magic, and send the unquiet spirits to their eternal rest. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

Review:

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

3.5 stars. Entertaining and somewhat funny at times, while still conveying a sense of danger—alright, maybe not terribly frightening per se for me, as I don’t frighten easily when reading books, but I think it has the right potential nonetheless. Half the Host at least was creepy in more ways than one, from the Shepherd with his glasses to the Prisoner with his shears… and even the Innocent, for the questions he raised (who would leash a *baby* as their pet ghost, really?!). The Host wasn’t a bunch of good guys, apart from a couple, and even those remained on the fence and never said the whole truth, only intervening at a “right” moment that could’ve been just a tad bit sooner for good measure.

As I’m a sucker for necromancy in general, of course I couldn’t help but look for the questions it raised. And there were several. The baby I mentioned, for starters. Why Luke’s father turned to such a type of magic, and why he bound such a large Host, when nothing at first indicated he even needed one (this is explained later in the book). Whether Luke would accept this part of his inheritance and be lured towards a desire for power, or try to remain who he was and have a normal life. Choices to make, and forgiveness. This wasn’t just about getting rid of a bunch of ghosts, but also choosing to protect or to condemn other people.

I liked the dynamics between Luke and Elza—there’s a smidge of a budding romance in there, one that doesn’t detract from the plot, and develops slowly: good! Luke realised he couldn’t clutch forever to his little life as one of the “popular” crowd, in the face of something much biger and dangerous. Elza was resourceful, and overall a nice person, trying to help people who had been treating her like an outcast just because she didn’t want to fit their mould. Holiday, too, was a bit of an ambiguous person: picking her friends among the popular ones and discarding the others, but not to the extent of becoming a mean girl. She was barely more than a crush, yet at least she was a believable one. As for the lawyer, well… Even though you don’t get to see him much, he was perfectly cast in his role.

Oh, and Ham. Ham the deerhound. A very short part of the novel is actually from his point of view, and that was quite funny. It would’ve been annoying if it had been longer; kept to a few paragraphs, it wasn’t, and definitely made me smile.

Other characters were less defined, unfortunately: Mark, Kirk, even Luke’s mother, who remains ill/asleep for most of the novel. That last one was a bit of a letdown, as in turn, it was difficult to properly get to know her and to share Luke’s worries for her for any other reason than “she’s his mom”.

Sometimes Luke’s reactions made me cringe, as he seemed to switch from one to the other real quick. It didn’t happen that often, and it could be explained by panic and worry; only it made me wonder why he’d get such reactions. (For instance, when it’s been made clear that you’re haunted by ghosts and that those have put a certain person in a coma, dragging that person to a hospital won’t be very useful, especially not considering all the people who die in a hospital.) A couple of times, too, I picked some absolutely obvious clues that totally eluded the characters (re: the familiar); on the other hand, all things considered, maybe that’s a case of being too genre-savvy on my part, so I can’t very well hold it against characters who were either totally new to the supernatural, or barely fledglings (Elza admitted herself she was self-taught).

There was a slight lull in the middle while the characters were powerless and trying to figure out what to do—not that Luke’s father had been very helpful to begin with. They came up with an interesting idea in the end, so I forgave them.

The writing was OK, nothing exceptional, nothing blatantly annoying either. It should flow nicely enough for the intended audience. (Also, my Kindle copy was a bit oddly formatted; however, this is an ARC, so likely to change.)

Conclusion: 3.5 stars rounded to 4, because in spite of the points I mentioned, I pretty much enjoyed it. The story is also self-contained, yet open-ended enough to leave room for a sequel (someone’s bound to come back and collect their dues here, not to mention what may or may not happen between Luke and Elza, and how their fellow pupils would react to it).

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