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Review: “Crown & Key: The Shadow Revolution” by Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith

Title: The Shadow Revolution
Authors: Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith
Series: Crown & Key
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2015

You know me, always on the lookout for some good urban fantasy or steampunk. If said book happens to be set in the Victorian era, I’ll not complain. I’ve a growing taste for that sub-genre tentatively labeled “gaslamp fantasy.” My newest find? Clay and Susan Griffith. This is their first book that I’ve found, but I’m already on the hunt both for the remaining two novels in this trilogy and their previous endeavor, Vampire Empire.

Something stalks the gas-lit streets of London, hungry and hunting. Few would peg dashing playboy Simon Archer as a supernatural vigilante, but then there aren’t many aware that he’s possibly the last scribe in existence. Give him something to write with–pen and paper, clay and a stylus, blood and anything relatively flat–and you’ll never know what hit you. Simon is usually more interested in charming his way into high society’s boudoir than he is in chasing things that go bump in the night, his magical adventures more of a hobby than a serious pursuit. Until, that is, a slavering werewolf tears out the throat of an old friend. Now Simon is on the trail of a threat far bigger than he had ever imagined, and he’s going to need all the help he can get…Help like his mentor/sidekick Nick Barker, a magical jack of all trades who would rather kick back with a pint than endanger himself in thrilling heroics. Help like Malcolm MacFarlane, a strapping Scottish werewolf hunter whose father may or may not have killed Simon’s. Help like Kate Anstruther, beautiful-yet-brilliant daughter of the Empire’s foremost explorer and a talented Alchemist. Together, they just might manage to put an end to the impending onslaught. If they’re incredibly lucky, they might even survive….

The Shadow Revolution is a gaslamp fantasy rollercoaster of a thriller, a summer blockbuster in novel form, and this is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The action never lets up, delivering a truly thrilling tale. Unfortunately, this breakneck pace leaves little time to take some of the characters much past their Central Casting descriptions. There’s some character development, to be sure, especially Simon and Kate, but a number of the interesting side characters get shortchanged. I’d like to know how Kate’s manservant Hogarth became such a beast, and the steampunk engineer Penny Carter is definitely intriguing as well. So far as that goes, we never do find out just what the villains’ endgame was, just that it was nasty and necessitated the removal of our protagonists as an obstacle. That’s enough, though, and you never really notice the omission until things are wrapped up. At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a fun, by-the-numbers thriller, look no further. That’s what the authors set out to deliver, and they do a masterful job of it.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, if you’re British. If you’re American, probably PG-13. Moderate sexual innuendo, not too explicit. Strong violence, occasionally gory and/or disturbing. Rampant magical content, from necromancy to alchemy.

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Review: “Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane–The Mark Of The Black Arrow” by Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck

Title: The Mark Of The Black Arrow
Authors: Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck
Series: Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Books, 2015

Dark days have come to Sherwood. King Richard has sailed for the Holy Land to do battle with the forces of darkness, taking with him the best of England’s strength. In his absence, darkness has taken root across the land aided by the would-be king John and his right-hand, the demonic Sheriff of Nottingham. Those loyal to Richard and the forces of light face an uphill battle as they try and protect the innocent from the heavy hand of the usurper. A man can be killed for standing against the king, but a legend? A legend can inspire hope even in the darkest of times. It is time for the Hood to once more protect the people of England….

Just when you thought you’d seen every incarnation of the Robin Hood tales imaginable, Debbie Viguie and James Tuck pull this out of the hat. This time around John is no petty tyrant, concerned only with how much gold he can ring from the people and aided by cruelly efficient human agents. This time John is a servant to the forces of darkness, determined to break the spirit of the people and deliver all the world to darkness. Unless, of course, our heroes can stop him….Enter Robin Longstride, youngest son of Richard’s right hand. He’s more at home hunting in the forest than trying to fill his father’s shoes, but with the elder Longstride off to the Holy Land Robin hasn’t much choice. The only bright spot in being called to the castle is the chance to see the king’s niece, Maid Marian. The king’s ward since the death of her parents in a tragic fire, Marian was supposed to serve as an adviser to John in Richard’s absence. John…has a different idea. Robin’s cousin, Will Scarlet, is far more comfortable at court than in the woods, but his task is far more dangerous–to stay in the usurper prince’s confidence, saying nothing while horrors are perpetrated before his eyes. The book walks a bit of a tightrope between dismissing and wholly embracing the power of the Church, but I think that is appropriate for the time in which it is set. There were undoubtedly good monks and church leaders, like Friar Tuck and the Cardinal, but there were also brigands hiding in their ranks. Then too, it is politically incorrect (not to mention historically inaccurate) to cast the Crusades as a struggle between Good and Evil. Not that this book is all that concerned with historical accuracy–it is far more concerned with staying true to the traditional narrative, which is deeply flawed in historical terms. King Richard spent little time in England at any time during his reign, and certainly little resembled his benevolent character from most Robin Hood tales. John did die in Nottinghamshire, but it wasn’t his headquarters. He was just passing through when he took ill. I’m not saying this is necessarily a weakness to the book, or even that I’d take it a different direction if I wielded the pen, just that like most Robin Hood legend it smacks far more of fiction than it does history. It was an unusual tale, but very fun. I look forward to the publication of the rest of the trilogy with great anticipation.

CONTENT: Strong, occasionally disturbing violence. Some crude language, mostly PG-13. Moderately-explicit sexual content. Strong occult content, from demons to necromancy.

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Review: “Trailer Park Fae” by Lilith Saintcrow

Title: Trailer Park Fae
Author: Lilith Saintcrow
Series: Gallow and Ragged  #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Orbit, 2015

As we’ve established, I’m a sucker for urban fantasy. This book was no different, even as it expanded my boundaries a bit. The Fae play a role in the Dresden Files, but this was my first time with something Fae-centric. Gotta say, I can’t wait for the next book in this series to come out, and I think I might look up more of Ms. Saintcrow’s work.

To all appearances, Jeremiah Gallow is just a simple construction worker down on his luck, and that’s just what he wants you to think. Formerly the half-human armormaster for the Queen of Summer, Jeremiah walked away from the world of the Fae years ago for the love of a mortal woman. It’s been five years since his beloved Daisy was killed in a freak car accident, but Jeremiah has no intention of returning to the world of the fickle Fae….until a Faery damsel in distress looking strikingly like his dead wife crosses his path and embroils him once more in the ever-shifting politics of Faery.

This was an incredibly fascinating book, and I loved every minute of it. It is not, however, always an easy read. The prose is beautiful, faintly echoing Shakespeare’s Faery, but like the bard it can get distractingly convoluted at times. I didn’t mind, it just means that if you’re planning to read this you might have to work a little on occasion. On a related note, there is almost zero outright info-dumping, so if you’re unfamiliar with legends of the Fae you might find yourself a bit off balance on occasion. You can usually pick stuff up from the context, but again, that takes a bit of work. There’s a brief glossary at the back of the book for Faery terms, very useful for connecting Saintcrow’s archaic (and I presume faithfully ancient) spelling. The book is pretty dark, without the splash of snark and wit that I’ve grown accustomed to in my urban fantasy, but that’s not so much a fault in the book as it is a problem with my expectations. The plot takes a little while to really get going, largely because so much time is spent establishing the characters, but that extra work definitely pays off and once the plot builds up a head of steam the twists come fast and furious. Some I saw coming, others blindsided me. Bottom line: I absolutely cannot wait for the next book so I can meet up with these characters once again.

CONTENT: Occasional R-rated language. Some frank if not outright-explicit sexual content and discussion. Strong violence, often disturbing. Rampant magic, though I wouldn’t quite deem it occultic.

This is a longer version of a review I wrote for the Manhattan Book Review.

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Review: “The Iron Assassin” by Ed Greenwood

Title: The Iron Assassin
Author: Ed Greenwood
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Ed Greenwood is a legend in certain circles, having created the immensely popular Forgotten Realms fantasy world that serves as one of the primary settings for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game series. I’ve yet to venture into this universe, but I’ve heard a good deal about it from friends and fellow geeks. Now Greenwood is venturing into a new universe, trading in Sword & Sorcery for Steampunk (or, as he refers to it, Gaslamp Fantasy.) The good news? Greenwood’s genius for world creation is unabated. The bad news? The book itself could have used a bit more work to bring it up to the expected degree of awesomeness.

In a world parallel to our own, the Empire of the Lion vies with the Spanish-based Empire of Amirondro and the Indian-based Rajahirate Empire for supremacy over a patchwork world of steam-driven innovation. Victoria III rules from seclusion, kept stubbornly alive with steam-powered heart & lungs while her son shoulders the responsibilities of government in a London rife with conspiracy and intrigue as the Dread Agents of the Tower seek to thwart the schemes of the villainous Ancient Order of the Tentacles. One such agent is Jack Straker, a brilliant (or reckless) inventor of numerous devices for protecting the Crown. His latest masterpiece: a clockwork-driven corpse to serve as the Prince Royal’s bodyguard…if it can be controlled. And if one man can control it, well…the Ancient Order is very interested in figuring out how to wrest that control away from the Crown and put the Iron Assassin to their own use….

While Greenwood is an old hand at classical fantasy, The Iron Assassin is his first foray into the realm of steampunk. Greenwood’s genius is in world creation, and that experience and attention to detail is clearly on display here. The book was a ton of fun, and I will definitely watch for the inevitable continuation. Unfortunately, the book could have used a little more editing before publication. There are numerous fragmentary sentences scattered throughout, and not just in the dialogue where such things are more accepted. The Dramatis Personae section at the beginning is wittily written but overlarge, running ten pages and containing every character found within these pages—even those who appear only long enough to expire. In the end, it’s more harmful than helpful, especially since it gave away the identity of the Ancient Order’s leader (I assume this was meant to be secret, as he was only ever referred to by his title in those sections, and by his name when he was acting in public.) Another sore spot is the somewhat inconsistent characterization. One character is introduced as a complete badass, then dies with barely a whimper. Perhaps forgivable, as the scene itself paints her as caught off guard at the end of a pleasant evening…except that several scenes beforehand it was established that she had managed to deduce that her killer was a member of the Ancient Order, and so should be very much on guard while accepting unexpected dinner invitations from said villain. At another point a character assesses the situation facing him and decides to get out of Dodge…and then shows up pages later at an induction ceremony for the Ancient Order, very much the opposite of fleeing for his life. Finally, there is an unresolved mystery surrounding the former identity of the Iron Assassin, Bentley Steelforce. Or maybe not, as everyone seems to think they know who and what he is: the reanimated body of a chimney sweep by the name of Bentley Roper. Except that there is clearly more to his story–when a startled knight starts to blurt out something about Steelforce’s past to Straker and a group of assembled notables, Steelforce calmly rips out his throat without missing a beat. I kept expecting the matter to be revisited, but it never was. Like I said, I enjoyed the book, but it was merely good when it could have been spectacular.

CONTENT: Surprisingly mild on the profanity front, though the “PG” words get quite a workout alongside the more colorful genre/era-specific cursing that litters nearly every conversation. Strong, sometimes grisly violence, scattered all through the novel. There are not infrequent sexual innuendos, mostly non-explicit, interspersed with slightly more jarring instances of explicit material such as is usually not found in this particular genre (at least so far as I’ve seen), including a clockwork corset for improving the quality of a lady’s “alone time.” There is little occult content, aside from references to a bogus (or is it?) cult that worships an ancient deity that sounds suspiciously like H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulhu. The Ancient Order supposedly uses this cult to muddy the waters regarding their activities, but there’s a bit of evidence towards the end of the book that suggests there is more to that story than is being said….

This is a longer version of a review I did for the Manhattan Book Review.

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Review: “The Dresden Files: Ghoul Goblin” by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, & Joseph Cooper

Title: Ghoul Goblin
Writers: Jim Butcher & Mark Powers
Artist: Joseph Cooper
Series: The Dresden Files
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dynamite, 2013

After producing comic adaptations of the first two Dresden Files novels, the creators decided to go in a different direction: original stories starring Dresden instead of just adapting preexisting tales. Personally, I’m in favor of this decision, since my favorite of the comics so far was the prequel that was set before the series began. And thus we get Ghoul Goblin, an original adventure set several months after the events of Fool Moon, taking Harry Dresden away from the Windy City and all the way to Boone Mill, Missouri in defense of a family of orphans.

Nearly a century ago, Major Archibald Talbot had the spectacularly bad sense to insult and offend a cadre of Egyptian mystics, a lapse in judgement that led to a nasty curse being placed on him and his entire bloodline. Ever since, Talbots have tended to draw supernatural trouble like flies to a rotting corpse. Today, all that remains of the Talbot bloodline is a single family…and the last week has seen two of the seven orphaned siblings die under mysterious circumstances. Can even Harry Dresden manage to protect the remaining Talbots and lift the curse? You’ll have to read on to find out!

On the whole, I really enjoyed this. It fit well into the larger Dresden universe, referencing other events and maintaining its connection to the series as a whole without making you feel lost if you were a new reader. It was interesting to see a few future elements foreshadowed too, such as Harry’s fight with a creature that just might be first contact with the Fomor. The art was great, if not as striking as Ardian Syaf’s in earlier books. (I’ll stop whining about that someday, I promise….) Syaf did come back long enough to do the covers, though, so that was better than nothing I suppose.

CONTENT: Some R-rated profanity, but not too gratuitous. Minor sexual innuendos, nothing explicit. Some gruesome violence, with varying degrees of gore. Harry is a wizard, working with magic and spells. There are various degrees of magical and monstrous creatures in this universe, with varying degrees of connection to the occult. Take that how you will.

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Review: “Dark Horse Presents #141: Buffy The Vampire Slayer” by Dan Brereton, Christopher Golden, Andi Watson, Joe Bennett, Hector Gomez, & David Perrin

Oh look! More Buffy. This is a special issue of the anthology comic Dark Horse Presents, focusing on Buffy and her friends. These three stories have apparently never been reprinted anywhere except Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV, so they may be hard to find….

Hello Moon
Written by Daniel Brereton & Christopher Golden
Art by Joe Bennett
Rating: *****
Synopsis:
Buffy cuts her patrol short for the night to go for a moonlight stroll on the beach. So of course she meets a fish monster and a quartet of vampires….
Review:
This was great across the board, if a little predictable in its resolution. The art was superb, though I think the vampire designs were a bit recycled from some earlier comics, be they Buffy or Blade….
Continuity: This is supposedly set during Buffy’s third season, but otherwise there’s no clue as to when it happens. I arbitrarily set it after S03E03: Faith, Hope & Trick.

Cursed
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis:
Buffy and Angel run into one of Angelus’ old comrades, causing Angel to flash back to just after his transformation as he stalks and kills his former best friend.
Review:
Aside from the fact that this is inconsistent with what we’ve seen in the show, this was actually really good. Gomez’s art still isn’t my favorite, but it didn’t bug me this time. And the story? It was good, an excellent exploration of Angel’s character and his own personal Hell. I only wish it was consistent with the rest of the details we know about the same period.
Continuity:
Like I said, this doesn’t fit. It’s supposed to happen sometime during Season 3 though.

Dead Love
Written by Andi Watson
Art by David Perrin
Rating: ***
Synopsis:
Buffy goes snooping for some light reading, and finds an account of one of Giles’ solo adventures.
Review:
Meh. It wasn’t bad, and the art was okay. I just wasn’t a huge fan. Just….mediocre I guess.
Continuity: Set sometime during Season 3. I arbitrarily stuck it after Revelations, mostly just to keep it out of the insanely-busy later part of the season.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume VII” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Matias Bergara

Title: American Vampire, Volume VII
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Matias Bergara
Series: American Vampire (Volume VII, American Vampire: Second Cycle #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2015

Finally! American Vampire is back from hiatus, and my library got it in! As always, this review might spoil previous collections, so you might want to start from the beginning…. (Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV/Volume V/Volume VI) You’ve been warned!

It’s now 1965, and in the ten years since Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet last saw each other everything has changed. America is a different place, from the space race to a war half a world away. Pearl has converted her family farm to a safe haven for young and innocent vampires on the run from the real monsters, while Skinner spends his time on the southern border robbing smugglers and drug lords. It’s peaceful, comparatively speaking. Of course, it can’t last….The Gray Trader, the original vampire, the first link in the evolutionary chain that ends with Skinner and Pearl, is coming. He’s powerful. He’s evil personified. He may just be the Devil incarnate. What does he want? God only knows, and unfortunately he’s not all that chatty with our protagonists….Rounding out the collection is a flashback story featuring Gene Bunting as he tracks the myth of the Gray Trader in 1947, following clues left in the journal of a doomed miner working a claim digging its way to Hell.

Gotta say, this was definitely worth the wait. Whereas the previous entries in the series have been stellar, they were admittedly lacking in a cohesive, ongoing narrative that tied the different stories together. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading about the various adventures of our protagonists, those were great stories! But now it looks like we’ve got an overarching story to tie everything together. What’s more, it’s looking to be a doozy! Rafael Albuquerque’s art is stellar as usual, with his trademark style that fits this book so well. Newcomer to the series Matias Bergara also hands in a great bit of work on the backup tale. I can’t wait to see what happens next….

CONTENT: This isn’t for the kiddies! It’s a Vertigo book, so you’ve been warned. R-rated language. Strong, gory violence, as you would expect from such monstrous creatures as appear here. Pearl and Skinner are on the side of the angels, but they’re monsters nevertheless. Their opponents? They’re worse. Mild sexual references, plus a couple creepy bits of nudity in the sketches from the journal. Not too explicit, but there nevertheless. No occultic content; these vampires are purely physical.

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