National Geographic Traveler: Miami & the Keys

Read May 2018
Recommended for Miami and Keys travelers
★    ★    ★   1/2 

Though I had my doubts about the usefulness of this guide to me, as my upcoming trip is Keys only, National Geographic as publisher was tempting.

Contents include: Miami History and Culture, Central Districts, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne & Virginia Key, Coconut Grove & Beyond, Coral Gables, South Miami, Excursions from Miami. This is by far the bulk of the book, covering pages 13 to 156. The Upper Keys, Middle Keys, Lower Keys, Key West & Dry Tortugas get about 80 pages, with a smaller after section on ‘Travelwise.’

The material devoted to the Keys is both well organized, nicely photographed and helpful. The book is thicker than Fodor’s, made up of heavy glossy pages and containing many photographs. Margins at the beginning are used to give information on addresses, phone numbers and websites. They make a big deal about ‘insider tips,’ but the majority do not seem particularly useful. One on Bahia Honda Key says, “Experiencing the Keys is best done by diving in, floating on, and flying over he shallow seas. The natural beauty of Bahia Honda is stellar from a Keys Hopper helicopter.” Uh, thanks for the self-promotion, NG Contributer and tour operator.

Where National Geographic shines is in it’s focus on each Key one travels through, along with several historically significant ones. Bahia Honda Key, for instance, has a quick description, a color photo of the shoreline, and details on the state park. It mentions a self-guided nature trail, and the kinds of plants and resident birds one might see. A section on ‘Diving and Snorkeling’ encourages travelers to check at the concession stand for tours and conditions and mentions that one can rent a small boat or kayak. The final section mentions fishing, with a highlighted box discussing the deceptive size of different Keys. Interspersed through these is interesting background information. One page (with photo) is devoted to Looe Key diving, a reef that is considered one of America’s best dive spots. There’s a two-page spread on tropical hardwood hammocks, which are low rises on the reef that are havens for animals.

This approach gives a nice in-depth feel to the variety of the Keys, giving time to such lesser known Keys such as Lignumvitae Key, Indian Key, and No Name Key. Some of the places it describes could certainly be considered tourist attractions, but they are generally of the nature or historically-focused sort. It gave me a better sense of how to see the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and combine it with the Blue Hole, a former quarry. I did see many of the same things mentioned in Fodor’s such as Theater of the Sea, Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park, feeding tarpon at Robbie’s Marina and a bird sanctuary. They both mention kayaking, although NG has an entire page of various places one might engage a boat through the entire Keys. Surprisingly, no mention of the Turtle Hospital that I could find, nor Aquarium Encounters.

The description mentions an extensive ‘travelwise’ section. Eh, not so much. A couple pages on transportation, mention of newspapers, post offices, fishing licenses, disability resources, visitor information centers, emergencies, lost credit cards and road services (extraneous and obvious, as ‘Road Service’ is for AAA members, and the credit cards are for specific companies). ‘Hotels & Restaurants’ is rather thin, with the bulk of recommendations devoted to the Miami area and Key West. Key Largo has three hotels and five restaurants mentioned, and the entire Middle Keys only two hotels and one eatery. Like Fodor’s, there is a tendency towards listing pricey establishments, and anything highlighted as ‘Something Special’ is bound to be pricey indeed (over $80 for an entree and over $280 a night for lodging).

Overall, NG presents a tour through the Keys that is heavy on the natural and historical experiences over the more commercial types of enterprise. Right up my alley; just wish they could have devoted a whole book to it.

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Fodor’s Travel In Focus: Florida Keys

Read May 2018
Recommended for Keys travelers
★    ★    ★   1/2 
 

Fodor’s In Focus: Florida Keys is perhaps the most traditional of the lot, presented in a very modern and visually accessible way. It opens with heavy glossy paper that is perfect for the many photos, but the remainder is thin paper sheets, making it about a centimeter thick, a compact size for sliding into a purse or bag. It opens with a seven-page spread on ’14 Top Experiences’ which include:

  1. Key West architecture (number one? Really?)
  2. Kayaking and canoeing
  3. Key lime pie
  4. Dolphin adventures
  5. The Cuba Connection (which refers to the food)
  6. Duval Street
  7. Key Largo’s Christ in the Deep (a statue in friendly snorkeling depth)
  8. Ernest Hemingway’s Home
  9. Highway 1 (unavoidable if you leave Key West, as its the only highway)
  10. Beaches (a suspicious entry, given the vast majority of beaches don’t fit the white sand stereotype)
  11. The Dry Tortugas
  12. Fresh seafood
  13. Fishing (meh)
  14. Sunset at Mallory Square (Key West again)

I found that to be a disappointing list, a combination of the obvious (the only highway, seafood) and Key West sites. The rest of the book is a traditional format, with an explanation of star ratings, quick page-long sections on Planning (how to get there, which Key), What to Do, When to Go, Kids and Families, and Great Itineraries broken down into 3, 7 and 10 day stays.

The book then sections into Upper Keys, Middle Keys, Lower Keys, Key West, and Gateways to the Keys that very briefly cover Miami, Florida City, and Homestead, ending with a section called Travel Smart. Given a compact book that is only 182 pages, none of these sections is hugely detailed. Think of it as presenting highlights. Each area has a brief description, an orientation to that island with a map, an ‘Exploring’ section that notes family-friendly activities, ‘Beaches,’ ‘Where to Eat,’ ‘Where to Stay,’ ‘Nightlife,’ ‘Shopping,’ and ‘Sports and the Outdoors,’ although this full of a description is only for the larger islands (Largo, Islamadora, Marathon, West). Fodors stars some sections with ‘Fodor’sChoice,’ noting them to be particularly good examples. For instance, in Key Largo they star John Pennekamp State Park under ‘beaches,’ and Key Largo Hilton under ‘places to stay, Key Largo Chocolates and Old Road Gallery under ‘shopping,’ and Quiescence Diving Tours under ‘Outdoors.’

I enjoyed that certain highlights were starred, and I don’t think I’d quibble with starred recommendations for things to do/outdoors. I’ll note that the eating places tended to be pricey, with cheaper recommendations having entrees always starting at $22 or so, but the more normal ‘choice’ place starting at $30-40 per entree. Likewise, ‘choice’ hotels tended to start at $350-$480/night, with a rare ‘cheaper’ choice at $269/night, all of which are generally higher end for the Keys depending on season. So, this is not a section that will give you the latest up-and-coming or the insider deals, but it will pick out reliable places. Honestly, Yelp is my place for restaurants, and tripadvisor for hotels.

Overall, it’s a decent Keys overview, indirectly giving a sense to what goes on at each island (hint: there isn’t any ‘nightlife’ in Big Pine Key). I did appreciate that some tour and diving companies were highlighted as ‘choice,’ as it gives a way to evaluate more solid businesses for the unsuspecting tourist. However, I’ll note that Florida Keys also does that with their Bluestar Program. It was somewhat of a surprise Fodor’s doesn’t mention it, which is perhaps their biggest weakness: a tendency to the predictable but not necessarily responsible. It does try to refer the reader to Fodors.com for more suggestions on places to eat, etc. for smaller Keys.

Note: this is the 2017 Edition. It mentions Bahia Honda Key and it’s associated state park as having one of the best beaches in the Keys; alas, Bahia Honda was one of the Keys that took the brunt of Irma, and part of the beach was still closed when I checked online in May. I’ll also note that the parks don’t seem to be as good as individual businesses when it comes to updating their website, so I’m hoping to discover differently.

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The Promise, by Robert Crais. Promised and delivered.

Read May 2018
Recommended for fans of thrillers, dogs
★    ★    ★   1/2 

Another fine installment in the Crais series.

In this, Elvis takes a job looking for Amy Breslyn, a missing woman who has been withdrawn ever since her son was killed overseas. She and her friend, Meryl, both work for a company that manufacturers explosive material for use in weapons, and a large sum of money has disappeared with Amy. Elvis’ first clue something is wrong is when he goes to investigate a home that where a writer friend lived and walks into a manhunt and a murder scene.

The plotting managed to take a couple of interesting turns, always a pleasure in an investigation story. Crais is particularly good at subverting reader expectations of genre tropes such as the ‘police unfairly targeting the P.I.’ I will say a couple of times plotting seemed extremely implausible–and I’m not referring to the canine’s perspective here– particularly K-9 Officer Scott’s decision to hold a promise to Elvis Cole despite serious repercussions, and ultimate actions on the part of Amy. They caused me mental ‘blips’ when reading, but for the most part, I’m willing to ignore those if the story is reasonably well told.

Crais has developed a sort of spin-off series from various characters, which gives him the opportunity to explore different perspectives and a different style of plotting. Elvis Cole stories seem to be more along the lines of traditional maverick detective, while Joe Pike seem to be more thriller-focused. This one is notable for bringing in K-9 Officer Scott and his K-9 partner, Maggie, who have their own book, Suspect. Although it’s billed as ‘Joe Pike #5,’ I didn’t find that it offered much insight into Joe, and in fact, don’t even remember a section from his character’s perspective. It does, however, have a couple of sections from the perspective of Jon Stone, freelance operative for Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and various other government agencies that want some plausible deniability.

The upshot is that narrative is largely from Elvis’ viewpoint, with occasional small pieces from Scott, Maggie the dog, Jon Stone, and Mr. Rollins, one of the villains. I could have lived without Maggie’s sections, mostly because I’ve been reading Eileen Wilk’s World of the Lupi series, and everyone seems to be cribbing from the same biologist when it comes to canines.

Overall, it remained a fast, entertaining read that held my attention. I’m a bit sad that I’ll be running out of Elvis Cole books soon.

 

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Mortal Sins by Eileen Wilks

Read May 2018
Recommended for fans of early Anita Blake, Kate Daniels
★    ★    ★   ★  

 

Every now and then I read a review that mentions something along the lines of, “I’m not going to summarize this book because you can read the description.”

You kids are so cute with your functioning memories. Despite having placed book #7 of the series on my TBR list, I did not remember the general plots of books #3-#6, so I decided that I must have skipped them. Until I reached the last third of Mortal Sins and recognized a particularly tense emotional scene. I thought I remembered how it turned out, but I peeked to be sure. So I will continue to remind myself of the plots, who narrates and all those silly things, because apparently, if I don’t, I won’t.

 

However, don’t consider that a mark against Mortal Sins or this series. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that people who would like a police procedural combined with a world rich in lupi and magic could do far worse than to pick up Eileen Wilk’s World of the Lupi series. In most of them, particularly the first, Detective Lily Yu and Rule Turner, poster boy for the lupi-rights movement, are the leading protagonists. As the series progresses, each book may bring in other viewpoints depending on the case being worked. Mortal Sins concentrates almost exclusively on the stories of Lily and Rule as they attempt to wrap up issues in D.C./Virginia area.

Mortal Sins has two major plots: the personal one of a custody hearing for Rule’s son, Toby; and the professional one of a series of seemingly unconnected killers who are almost fatally confused and whose victims smell of death magic. I thought the balance between the two was handled quite well, resulting in Lily and Rule feeling like a typical busy professional couple who were trying to balance needs of personal, family and professional lives. When Rule discovers the missing victims and both he and Lily note the death magic, she eagerly takes over the case on behalf of the FBI. Meanwhile, as Rule deals with Leidolf pack issues from the last book, the press gets wind he is in town on personal matters.

It’s fun to watch Lily work, as her competence, focus, and drive often set those unused to her off balance. There’s often some power dynamics when has to work with other agencies, and Wilks doesn’t shy from bringing up sex, race, or species issues. Honestly, it’s always a pleasure. Lily’s such a thinking person, and her technique is to ask frequent questions, which often results in interesting answers for both her and the reader. Rule, however, often seems to be the feeling part of the couple, an absolutely enjoyable turnaround from normal female and male characterizations. The investigation struggles at first, as the team tries to sort out likely from unlikely scenarios. The fact that a great deal of magic was let into the world seven months ago means everyone is still discovering ramifications.

Wilks does a nice job of keeping the focus on the investigation and the family issues without getting distracted too much by prior plots or side characters. That said, it is likely a series that is harder to pick up without reading book one and two where Wilks does a more thorough introduction to her world. There’s a bit of awkward info-dumping in the beginning of this one, but it’s a nice shorthand for those forgetful folks (cough, cough). I thought characterization was extremely impressive, from Lily and Rule progressing, to Toby’s nine-year-old perspective, to Granny.

I’d recommend this series to fans of urban fantasy. I think if you wanted to like Anne Bishop’s ‘The Others’ series, but found it boring and illogical, this might be more palatable. Or if you liked early Anita Blake (minus the multiple sex scenes; while present here, they are quickly completed). I also suspect fans of the earlier Kate Daniels might enjoy this; while there isn’t the prevalent humor and new mythology, there’s a kick-ass, competent woman in charge. Thinking about it, I’d say it most feels like Shaefer’s Daniel Faust series, with less smart-ass. Really, it’s become my new favorite candy series, although it feels more satisfying than your average Skittles. Maybe it’s a brownie read: solid and satisfying.

 

Note: series continues to maintain it’s lead for “Worst Cover Art for a Series,” 2018 reads edition.

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The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of noir, 1920 cities
★    ★   ★   1/2

It’s funny how things come together sometimes, isn’t it? I was keeping an eye out for Bennett’s newest book when I discovered his sophomore book, a noir-magical realism kind of thing. I’d also been reading Lost New York and browsing my way through NYC Public Library’s online photo collection, enjoying the feel of times gone past in the big city. Then on Facebook, someone posted a link of new Youtube video, speed-corrected and sound-added to footage from a 1911 Swedish documentary in NYC:

When I picked up The Company Man, I was more than primed to imagine Bennett’s story set in the 1919, in an alternate timeline where the city Evesden, in Washington state, becomes one of the greatest cities in America through the miraculous inventions of the McNaughton Corporation.

Hayes is one of the security men of the great corporation, who uses a kind of patterning sixth sense to troubleshoot issues for the company. Unfortunately, Hayes has a bit of a drinking problem. And an opium pipe problem. The last job he did ended up in a publicity disaster, so his only way back into good graces is to take on a job looking for union men within the company, indirectly supervised and aided by Samantha. Garvey is a NYC Evesden detective who cares too much as he tries to solve various murders. There’s been a steady increase in the murder rate, which takes a serious jump when eleven people are found dead in a trolley car.

In many ways, it feels similar to The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Both take a city setting that feels almost familiar, then give it fantastic elements that allow the authors to explore different ideas in the setting of progress. In Bennett’s case, ideas about economics, and in Whitehead’s, ideas about race. It also feels a little similar to A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, although far more interesting. Bennett’s writing is evocative, and his description of the city makes it come alive, albeit in a somewhat dismal way. I can see the inkling of the writer who would go on to create the Divine Cities trilogy I loved so much.

“Deep in the twisting bowels of Dockland the city did not sleep. As the distant spotlights flickered on the markets stirred and came to life, gathering in dimly lit rooms and doorways and alley entrances. Smoke tumbled across the tent covers and turned the voices of the barkers and the tradesmen into coarse growls, barely human over the din and clatter of trade… Hayes moved among them all like a ghost, weaving through the weak points of the crowds. He was riding a mean drunk and he had forgotten his coat somewhere and his scarf was stuffed down the front of his shirt, which was only half-buttoned. He tried to keep his senses about him.”

As always, I enjoy Bennett’s writing, the description and the flow. I think it’s less polished than the Divine Cities, but the evocative imagery is there.

The balance between human characters, the McNaughton Corp as a character and the city as a character is perhaps somewhat off, particularly as it is hard to identify with a corporation or a city. Perhaps the largest issue is pacing. Like American Elsewhere, this has a slow build, almost a prequel to the meat of the story that introduces characters and city. The trolley murders, mentioned on the jacket as if they are the driver of the story, don’t happen until a hundred pages in, give or take. I think he builds the story somewhat slowly, but well.

Unfortunately, the story goes a bit off the rails at the end. But maybe it doesn’t; according to other reviews, “it picked up a lot.” Oh sure, it does do that. I likely would have forgiven it, but Bennett becomes extremely heavy-handed with the moralizing in a bit of eye-rolling dialogue. In many ways, I think the structure of the book feels similar to American Elsewhere, with a completely different setting (modern southwest versus 1920s steampunk), so for those who had patience with that would likely enjoy this. On the whole, though, I’d say it’s impressive for a sophomore book.

 

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Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of sci-fi lite
★    ★   1/2

 

A Chapter by Chapter Reading Experience

One: Hmm. Not into serial killer chasing inept 20 year-old woman, even/esp. set up as ‘humor.’

Two: Okay, made me laugh with the spatula joke.

Three: I don’t believe a woman who would own a Persian cat would call him ‘Stench Machine.’

Five, six, and eight: The description of the ‘Blink’ nails social media as a ‘reality experience.’ Very lightly veiled social commentary but sadly on point.

So far: The protagonist is incompetent.

Ten: And dumb.

Twelve: Seriously.

Thirteen: Histrionics over. Plot time.

Fourteen: I don’t believe a woman is this interested in talking toilets.

Fifteen: Laughed at the Elvis joke.

Nineteen: I appreciate the economic dichotomy between trailer park and mansion, but really, consider socioeconomic message received.

Seventeen: Characterization changes every few chapters.

Twenty: This is interesting.

Twenty-four: Why do we have a whole chapter about Zoey getting fitted for a funeral suit?

Thirty-three: WTH? No fair re: mom.

Thirty-five: gotta wrap this up so I can sleep tonight.

Thirty-nine: Are we done yet?

Forty-nine: Stalled

End: Sigh. Zoey obviously ‘cool chick’ material because her idea of fun is six hours of basketball playoffs.

Afterthought: I wondered why Wong chose to write a female lead character when he isn’t very good at it. But then I realized it was needful for the victim role.

Summary: you could go either way on this. I can’t, though originally, I was thinking Hitchhiker’s Guide-level-smart until it lost momentum. Flat characterization (villain was Straight Outta The Incredibles) and fundamentally sexist characters/ization (Zoey is ‘a blob’ whose actions consist of being oppositional; there are literally only three women in the entire book (view spoiler) and we know what all of their boobs look like; torturing women is part of the ongoing threat) made it drag whenever the action stopped. Large sections of telling, mostly, telling Zoe, although occasionally she gets to tell others. On the redeeming side, there is a solid underlying message, nice bits of humor, less juvenile than John Dies at the End, and initial unpredictability keep it readable. Reminds me a lot of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, which I liked much better.

Two and a half Stenches, rounding down because I’m still kind of irked about Wong being such a dude about Zoey.

Note: Leading contender for 2018’s Year in Review, Category: “Best example of Dick-lit Even Though the Main Character is a Woman.”

 

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Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of sci-fi lite
★    ★   ★

Unpopular review time. Despite the beautiful cover and glowing reviews, Sea of Rust was decidedly anticlimactic.

 

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has been eliminated, it is centered on Brittle, an autonomous artificial intelligence, and her effort to survive. Brittle is one of the last Caregiver models of AI, originally created to care for humans. When out in the Sea of Rust, scavenging parts from dying AIs, she is attacked by another AI, setting in motion a complex chain of events.

Most of the story is told in first person, although when Brittle relates the general events that led to the evolution of artificial intelligence and the war with humanity, she often takes a third-person historian approach. I found the story generally well told and interesting, although there are some occasional time shifts when I found myself thinking the transition was a bit abrupt. Most of the time, the past eithers provides perspective on Brittle’s existence or that of the AIs.

The problem for me is perhaps that I read a bit too much fantasy and sci-fi, and the characterization never really coalesced for me. For about 80% of the time, I mentally characterizedd the AIs as ‘somewhat dysfunctional human character,’ with maybe 20% of the time believing I was reading about non-human intelligences. Contrast that with Children of Time, in which Tchaikovsky was able to create a race of believable, intelligent spiders that did not feel human in their thinking, or Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit that centered on an AI trying to figure out an identity. Rust’s AIs almost universally felt like humans with dysfunctional emotional issues. Didn’t work for me. It didn’t impede me from reading, by any means, but it spoke more to my apocalypse issues than issues of AI or self-determination. There’s a twist at the end that hardly seemed a twist at all, and further confused me about its very existence.

“And most systems weren’t top-of-the-line when it came to security, instead running on mainstream driverless systems yanked out of any old car, modified only with a standard widely used manual drive code written twenty-five years back. And this was no exception. The code had eccentricities, and few bots knew enough about them to bother debugging them. If you fucked with the things enough internally, you could force a reset that would give manual control over to the driver, without the need for a password.”

Paragraphs like this left me wondering: why didn’t AIs write new code instead of using 25 year old code that had bugs? Why is an AI saying ‘fucked’ to describe a very human habit of ‘ineffectively screwing around? It reads like “Mad Max,” not computer AI.

From reviews and descriptions, I was a bit afraid this might head into ponderous ‘philosophical’ discussions, musing on what it means to choose one’s identity. It does do that, but in a very accessible and generally interesting way–although again, it didn’t feel alien as much as ’emotionally stunted anti-hero.’ There’s a great deal of action and gunfights–at one point, I found myself wondering about bullet factories–to distract the reader from the thorny character and determination issues. There’s also a bizarre one page discussion about what it means to be ‘God’ in this new order, which seemed oddly out of place. I am almost positive that it would have driven my philosophical friends bananas with logical leaps and assumptions.

Of all of it, I found I was most interested in the backstory, the development of the AIs and the leap into self-direction. I also found myself wondering about the current ability of AIs to manage the parts and power they needed, issues that seemed largely ‘hand-wavey’ for the importance they play. Not bad, certainly, but underwhelming in terms of character and world-building. Honestly, it feels light in actual science, and more like “The Terminator Grows a Heart.” In short: this is Hollywood Sci-Fi. But now it can head back to the library.

Two and a half RAM chips, rounding up because I’m human.

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Blood Lines by Eileen Wilks

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, Kate Daniels
★    ★   ★   ★   

I can’t imagine why I dropped this series. Actually, I can: while I waiting for Wilks to write the next book, I broke up with urban fantasy. But we’re back together now, and spurred on by friends Mimi and Milda, I’ve restarted this series.

This book went down like a yummy dessert. Packed with flavor, it deals with demon attacks and the outfall, particularly with a local Washington D.C. wolfpack. Lily and Rule are in D.C., Lily as she goes through mandatory FBI training, and Rule as he continues working for the passage of a lupi citizenship bill. One night as they are leaving a choir concert, Rule is attacked by a demon. At the same time, Cynna the magic Finder becomes aware of a surge of magical energy. Lupi and sorcerer Cullen is off looking for dragons, but ends up fighting off his own demon attack. Viewpoint jumps around the four of them, but I’d say primarily Cynna and Lily.

I didn’t really mean to finish in one afternoon, but that’s certainly what happened. particularly as the midwest was in a late-spring snow blip (what climate change?). The action was interesting and purposeful, accompanied by world-building and problem solving. Relationship insecurities between Lily and Rule have improved, but were unfortunately transferred over to Cynna and Cullen. There were, perhaps, a couple of problems, namely with the ultimate purpose/goal of the demons, but I thought I understood what Wilks was trying to do, even as I might have suggested some tweaks. I was also a little displeased by her chosen direction for Cynna, particularly given her magical experience/expertise (her refusal to acknowledge a couple of magical situations).

I think people who enjoy Ilona Andrews might very well enjoy this series. Oh, they are, of course, seemingly different on the surface. Kate Daniels lives in a post-semi-apocalyptic Atlanta that is only partly recognizable, as it is influenced by magic. The world in ‘The World of the Lupi’ is more like Anita Blake’s world–shapeshifters have come out of the closet and are in the process of gaining full citizenship, Wiccan covens are a magical thing, and the FBI employs people who can tell what your magic is with a touch. Kate Daniels is the narrator and main focus of her books, and off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other viewpoints in the main novels. In Wilk’s series, the narrative is third person, but is shared between different characters of the book, an ensemble cast view.

But they are similar where it counts: competent, strong heroines that do not resort to emotional manipulation to get their way and who have a strong streak of independence. A clearly well-thought out world, with the sense that stranger things are always around the corner. Plots that do not rely on the main characters hiding something or forgetting to share something. Steady action, both magical and physical. An affection for cats.

At the moment, I think I’m skipping the next, taking place as it does in Faerie. That’s just me, though, and my reaction to the ‘parallel worlds’ construction–I read way too much fantasy in the 80s that relied on it.

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Mortal Danger by Eileen Wilks

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy
★    ★   ★   1/2

I’m going to shamelessly borrow a technique from my friend and buddy-reader, Mimi, and shorthand this as:

‘The one where Lily becomes two people, visits Dis with Rule and an annoying demon, and meets Cynna. Also, dragons.’

First read in somewhen between published date of 2005 and 2010, when I entered a trial break-up with urban fantasy. There was much that I didn’t remember, but I did recall the journey to another realm and dragons. Interestingly, the part about dragons that I thought I remembered, however, is probably in the next book. My memory for these things is so non-specific. At any rate, Mortal Danger is faster paced, having relied on the initial book, Tempting Danger, for most of the political world-building. Never fear, however–there’s more to learn for all of us, including the main characters.

It opens with Lily at her sister’s infamous wedding, where Lily is discovered unconscious in the bathroom, likely as the result of some kind of demon contact. Rule and Lily meet up with the witch from the FBI Special Ops and are introduced to Cynna, a ‘Finder,’ who just happens to have had a fling with Rule a few years back. This is also when Lily realizes Rule is much older than her, the lupi having longer lifespans. Relationship drama is a touch-and-go plot device for me, heavy on the ‘go,’ so it’s almost a relief when the team confronts the staff and staff-holder and Rule disappears.

“But she wasn’t asking questions. Questions were Lily’s way of sorting the world into shapes she could deal with, and she’d been tossed some pretty odd curves in the past few hours.”

It gets a little odd at that point, and safe to say that it’s definitely not your average paranormal at that point. In fact, this one barely qualifies as ‘paranormal’ in my book, primarily only because the relationship between Lily and Rule is quite central to the plot(s). I did enjoy the dragons, but I felt Wilks was a bit weak in her plotting of external events happening over in Dis. Specifically (general spoilers),<spoiler> the demon-dragon politics and the intention of the dragons are with the little refuge group, especially when it seems there is dissension in the dragon ranks.</spoiler> This book ends up giving a solid and needful push forward in Lily and Rule’s relationship that should help minimize some of the basic insecurity and independence issues Lily has. That’s what I hope, at least.

“As gracefully as dandelion fluff, that great body drifted to the ground near the cliff ’s edge.”

I thought the writing quite good, with rarely a phrasing or process that tripped me up mentally. In fact, I’d say there were moments that shone. Verdict? If you still enjoy reading urban fantasy with an ‘out’ supernatural approach and paranormal elements, you could do far worse than this series. Yes, the next one is on the way from the library.

 

Thanks to Mimi for the kick-in-the-pants buddy read.  My vague memories might have won out otherwise 🙂

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Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

Read  April 2018
Recommended for fans of Bel Dame, unusual fantasy
★    ★   ★   ★

 Apocalypse Nyx is a group of five shorter works about Nyx and her team of misfits from Hurley’s Bel Dame series that begins with God’s War. ‘The Body Project’ and ‘The Heart is Eaten Last” seem novella length (my ARC does not do word count) accounting for 57% of the book, and as such, provide the most detail about the Bel Dame universe.

It’s a complicated, fascinating place, made up of insect technology, semi-mystical body part repair and replacement, and shapeshifters. The state Nyx is from, Nasheen, is matriarchal although at least one of the neighboring states is not. The culture is heavily influenced by the war between Nasheen and the neighboring state of Chenja, which has been going on for decades and impacts every facet of Nasheen life. I suspect Hurley of using it to explore themes of loss, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder and the resulting dysfunction. Nyx is the protagonist of the series, but is painfully hard to like. The Chenjan magician, Rhys, acts as a moral and ethical compass, but would be easier to listen to if Nyx didn’t have such a talent for pulling success out of disaster.

“The Body Project”

Nyx and Rhys are on a bounty hunt when they find a headless body on the street, the head magically swinging six stories above. It turns out she recognizes him, a man who used to be with her squad when she was at the war front.

“We’re here for a parole violator, not a deserter,” Rhys said, paging through the slick green papers of his little book of bounty contracts. “Should I update Taite on the delay?” “Not yet,” she said… she wasn’t sure how deep this was going to get yet, and didn’t want to involve any more people than she had to until she understood why a good man who died a thousand miles from here lay mutilated on the streets of Bahora.”

“The Heart is Eaten Last”

It has been two years since Rhys joined the team and Nyx finds herself taking a job for a lovely woman whose family’s weapon plants are being sabotaged. The woman fears it may be a bel dame behind it. The team needs to work with a shifter and finds Khos.

“He hated her, so why did it hurt to see her get what she deserved? This was the life she’d chosen. And she would keep choosing it. She would come home every day bloody and drunk and spouting nonsense. Resigning was the only way to be free of her. Distance was the only way he could get himself to stop caring.”

“Soulbound”

The team is looking for some technology that seems to be hidden in dead bodies when they meet Abdiel, a mechanic, who is researching the location of the soul. Their search takes them to the war front.

“Crossroads at Jannah”

This job is finding some bugs used to store data that have been disposed of in an acid lake. A quick little story, it epitomizes the approach Nyx has to her jobs and her team.

“Paint Red”

Everyone gets a day off, even Nyx. Too bad her day off repaying an old favor turns out even worse than a day with her normal team. The job is finding some tech at a parrot temple. Another harsh slice of Nasheenian reality.

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Nyx is hard to like, but a interesting character in a complex world. Those looking for sympathetic mains would be better off looking elsewhere. These are definitely of the dark fantasy variety. I suspect these stories would work best for those who are already familiar with the Bel Dame universe and the complexities of the team’s relationships.

 

 

In full disclosure, I had read two of these stories earlier as part of Hurley’s Patreon rewards.

Many thanks, as always, to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley.

 

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