Blood Rites

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IT WAS ALL A LIE

5 STARS

In the previous book in this series (Death Masks), Jim Butcher lays out four revelations regarding Harry Dresden that promise to be possible pivot points in the ongoing storyline. Using the character of Nicodemus, a demon collaborator with the Fallen, as his conduit, Butcher first provides both the reader and Harry an additional piece of evidence that his mother had been a practitioner of black magic. Secondly, Nicodemus tells Harry that he is not an only child but his mother’s youngest child.

Thirdly, Nicodemus informs Harry that he is not totally human and could border on being immortal. Harry actually misses that part, by the way, due to the pain and agony caused by Nicodemus torturing him at the time.

And finally, in the last pages, Nicodemus tricks Harry into picking up a coin bearing the sigil of one of the Fallen that he has thrown right at the feet of Michael Carpenter’s baby. Quite frankly, it never dawns on Harry to just grab the baby up. Instead, without a holy cloth barrier, Harry slams his hand down on the coin. When he does, a force shoots up his arm; he feels a soul stretching into wakefulness and then hears soft, indistinct whisperings. Oh, yeah – cliffhanger and pivot point all in one package!

Now, in this very next book, those four pivots morph into a fulcrum on which is mounted a catapult loaded with the fiery orbs of truth about Harry’s birth, his childhood and his apprenticeship as wizard of the White Council. And the unraveling of that truth starts out so innocently.

Thomas Raith, a vampire in the ruling House of the White Court, hires Harry to identify and stop the entity that is trying to kill Arturo Genoso, a movie producer who is trying to break away from a big studio on the West Coast and start his own production company in Chicago. From Thomas’ description of the two attempts that have killed women around Genoso, but not Genoso himself, Harry figures an entropy curse is in play. That type of curse is something Harry likes to steer well clear of, but Thomas plays the “I’ve-saved-your-hide-several-times-now-it’s-your-turn” card. So Harry signs on.

The remainder of the novel takes place in a little over 48 hours. But, in that short time, Jim Butcher doesn’t just throw Dresden and the reader the one bone of an entropy curse to gnaw on and digest. He hits us with the whole hog – an entropy curse seeking to kill Harry, flaming purple demon monkeys trying to burn Harry alive, Black Court vampires trying to tear Harry to pieces, other Black Court vampires trying to burn Harry alive, Kincaid and McCoy at each other’s throats in front of Harry, and White Court vampires trying to sacrifice – literally and ritually – both Thomas and Harry.

Then, in the middle of these life-threatening scenarios, Butcher decides to up the ante and releases that catapult, one pivotal orb at a time. Massive deceptions and lies of omission are revealed, one after another, even as Harry battles the vampires and the maker of the entropy curse, trying to keep Thomas, Murphy and himself alive. By the time the final sling of the catapult flies, over three decades of Harry’s life have figuratively gone up in flames. And the literal flames have not been so good to Harry either.

Even by the midpoint of the book, the savvy reader knows that the ramifications of the truths revealed to that point are not such that Harry is going to be able to just take them in stride, say “so be it,” and move on. And by the end of the book, the final slings of the catapult stand to shatter the very backbone of Harry’s existence and sever from it the tenets on which he was raised by his father and McCoy.

Butcher makes you feel the hurt, the betrayal, the rage, the need to replace helplessness with power, and the desire to kill that is now throbbing through Harry’s veins and brain. As you approach the final pages you cannot help but feel that the next book or two will be heavy and dark. And you wonder whether Butcher will, in that time, choose to lose the wise-cracking private investigator who champions human rights or will bring out, instead, a practitioner of the magic that is as black as the glove Harry now wears on his left hand.

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Death Masks

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PIVOTAL ENTRY IN THE SERIES

5 STARS

To read the promotional blurb on the back of the book, you’d think this was an entry very similar to the previous four. That blurb lists five different scenarios that will envelop Harry Dresden simultaneously, which is actually one or two more than normal.

For instance, the first 35 pages of the book encompass 2 hours of time in Harry’s life. In those 2 hours, Harry is blackmailed into a duel to the death with a warrior of the Red Court, a team of Johnny Marcone’s mafia goons ambush him in a parking garage, a Vatican emissary hires him to find the stolen Shroud of Turin and Susan Rodriguez reappears on Harry’s doorstep, after more than a year’s absence, and saves him from a vampire ambush. Add 2 more hours and 15 more pages and Harry has, in the morgue, a headless, handless, flayed corpse presenting multiple plagues to identify for Chicago PD’s Karin Murphy.

Yep, it seems like business as usual for a Harry Dresden book. However, four of the five episodes actually boil down to only two situations: the Vampire Red Court’s war against the Wizard’s White Council and the theft of the Shroud.

Susan’s returning is the wild card here, not only for Harry emotionally but for Harry’s mortality. The question is whether she is there extraneously to the other events or whether she is part of the War. Since the former leader of the Red Court was originally responsible for Susan’s current half-vampire, half-undead state, we don’t truly know if she is there to help Harry or to betray him.

This entry of the series appears to be pivotal to the ongoing story arc. All of the major players seem to make quantum, but believable, leaps in character growth and progression – Harry, Susan, Murphy, even Marcone. In addition, Harry is openly challenged by more than one major secondary character to examine his motivations and determine just why he chooses to protect mortals at the expense of his own health, wealth and standing in the supernatural community.

…SPOILERS FOLLOW…

Then we are introduced to a major secondary character who seems to know more about Harry than Harry does. Nicodemus, a collaborator with the Fallen who has been alive for millennia, claims to have known Harry’s deceased mother well and tells Harry that he has siblings. This is the second time that Harry has heard talk about his mother from a demon but it is the first time he has heard that he is not an only child.

But, most importantly, Nicodemus indicates that Harry is immortal. Not that he would be if he succumbed to the demon’s demands, but that he already is.

However, due to the fact that he is being tortured by Nicodemus at the time, Harry does not appear to comprehend the statement in its entirety. But I have a feeling that statement is laying the groundwork for much more to come. Since, as I write this review in 2014, there are currently 10 more novels in the series, I expect I’ll know soon enough if I understood that scene correctly.

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Moon Dragon

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OUT OF THE DARKNESS

5 STARS

The focus of this short novel, the 10th in its series, is Samantha Moon’s humanity. The dark master, who came to possess part of her mind, body and soul when she was transformed into a vampire nine years ago, is now fighting for total possession. And Samantha is losing the battle.

This is definitely not a standalone work. Rain references both events and persons from previous novels with little recap of circumstances or timing. Relationships between Samantha and the other characters are only tangentially explained. Therefore, being up-to-date in the series is a must for maximum enjoyment and to avoid that “do what?” feeling.

The incident that jumpstarts the action is a meeting between Sam and her deceased husband’s former mistress, a meeting that has been requested by the mistress. As is often the case between a wife scorned and “the other woman,” this encounter starts off just a bit tense and defensive on both sides. But Nancy has some previous experience with monsters and the two are able to find a common ground and even a small measure of respect for each other within short order.

As Nancy explains to Sam, the man she became intimate with, after Danny became a ghost, talks in his sleep. It appears that Gunther Kessler is a werewolf who spends his full moon change devouring his evening meal while it is still on the hoof and very much alive. And he likes that meal to be human and female. With barely a week to the next full moon, Nancy believes Sam is the best chance of stopping the man before another woman just simply disappears off the face of the earth.

Sam agrees to take the case and begins tracking Gunther’s movements in an attempt to locate the hidey-hole where he stashes his entrée-to-be. But as the days pass, she begins to have ambivalent feelings about the need to find and stop Gunther. The thought of Gunther’s hunt and then the kill is becoming more exciting to her by the hour. She finds that she doesn’t really care about the fate of the victim anymore. And then she begins to think that people who put themselves in a position to be taken by the werewolf deserve to die anyway.

J.R. Rain’s portrayal of Sam’s descent toward depravity and murderous madness is tension-filled and fearful. The once-in-a-while, un-characteristic action and the occasional, stray, uncharitable thought become a spate of these actions and thoughts. The spilled blood of an innocent seems, and is, inevitable. And you find yourself holding your breath wondering just how this descent into such viciousness and hate could possibly resolve itself in an acceptable and believable manner.

So many characters from the previous novels have roles here in Sam’s fight for her humanity. Allison and the Librarian are cast as solid support along with Sam’s children while Kingsley and Fang are central to the denouement. Kingsley’s love is critical to Sam mentally while his knowledge of immortals aids her against Gunther. And Fang’s friendship, as well as his own recent descent into darkness, reaches past Sam’s anger and ennui, cutting to the real issue regarding her humanity.

But the introduction of a new dark master into Sam’s life is crucial to Sam’s physical survival. And, it seems this same evil entity, perhaps the most evil and quite probably the very first of Sam’s species, could be essential to her existence, to her potential and to her power as a vampire. As such, Rain has laid out on the table some very enticing hooks for the next, or next several, entries in the series.

And, by the way, the title to the book? Pay close attention, particularly toward the end, think “Talos,” and all will be revealed.

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Grave Peril

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BECAUSE HE DID WHAT WAS RIGHT

5 STARS

In the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Harry makes an immortal enemy in Bianca, a well-known and influential madame in Chicago. Bianca is also a vampire of the Red Court, a sect that has no compunction against killing the humans on whom they feed.

In the second novel, Bianca is conspicuous by her absence. Harry has little time to consider this, however, as he is busy subduing a demon under the control of Kravos, a sorcerer with a demented hate for Harry. With the considerable help of Knight Templar, Michael Carpenter, Harry dispatches the demon and Kravos is arrested.

Now, in the third book, Bianca is back, with her plans for revenge against Harry in place (think Kravos). Having been elevated to a position of power on the Vampire Council, Bianca plans a masquerade ball as celebration for her Court, with invitations also being sent to the designated representatives of each supernatural group within the Nevernever. Thus, Harry, as representative for the White Council, is invited, along with a guest of his choosing, to the ball.

Harry has no plans to attend that event. First of all, he really doesn’t want to walk into the lair of a vampire who has sworn to kill him, even if the “rules” of the Nevernever grant him safe passage. And secondly, he and Michael are up to their eyeballs in ghosts who have been slipping through a weakened wall in the Nevernever to wreck havoc, mayhem and death upon those who may, in some way, represent a contribution to their demise.

When one of the ghosts escapes them, Harry and Michael are forced to pursue her into the Nevernever. With his Sight, he discovers that the ghost is under the influence of a torture spell – ice cold barbed wire embedded in her neck and wrapped in coils about her body until it embeds itself again in her ankle. The tortures attached to the wire are for the purpose of causing deep emotional grief, unbearable pain and insanity.

Then, whoever or whatever is causing this spate of ghostly violence turns its attention to Harry. The entity, dubbed the Nightmare, first attacks one of Murphy’s former detectives in his sleep, wrapping the torture spell about him in his dreams. Then the entity attacks Harry while he is dreaming, but no barbed wire spell is included. Instead, within the dream, the entity guts Harry and consumes the organs, thereby removing the majority of Harry’s magic. The entity would have gotten it all save for Harry’s cat and the Bob skull managing to awaken him just before death would have been certain.

Now, virtually incapacitated magically, Harry cannot save Murphy when she is attacked by the torture spell. Continuing the rampage, the entity kidnaps Michael’s pregnant wife, and Harry must, for all practical purposes, sell his soul to save her. At this point, it appears that attendance at Bianca’s ball is going to be necessary if he wishes to find the perpetrator, retrieve his powers and end the carnage.

Just as in the previous books of the series, this one is non-stop mayhem, violence and angst. At least three supernatural entities want Harry destroyed, first mentally and physically tortured and then killed. Another creature wants him alive, but only so that she can possess him entirely in body, mind and soul. And through it all, Harry feels that he alone bears the responsibility for the safety of his friends. Even though these villains freely and purposefully choose their own actions, Harry still feels that he has forced them into their choices.

Sometimes you just want to slap Harry silly. But Jim Butcher has the character of Michael help him to get back on track with one of the most succinct and memorable pronouncements I have ever read:

“What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around. And sometimes you are what’s coming around.”

This urban fantasy series falls into that category where most of the supernatural creatures have an innate predatory and vicious nature. There is no compunction not to kill what they eat or not to cheat whom they bargain with or to ever tell the truth. Suspension of disbelief is simply a requirement from the opening words as far as dealing with the mental and physical stamina and the skills that these magical creatures, both human and not, possess. But in this third entry, Butcher drives home the strength of Harry’s character, his innate goodness and the forthright moral compass of his soul in such a manner that no belief need be suspended to accept.

DEFINITE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

The one major character that I have not yet mentioned is Susan Rodriguez, pulp news journalist and Harry’s girlfriend. From the very beginning of the series, I have disliked this character. Whether Jim Butcher means for the reader to dislike her, I do not know, but she has always come across to me as selfish and egotistical, a user. I have never doubted that she cares for Harry as much as she is able, but she always seems to place her wants and her needs first with no real concern for what Harry might need.

And finally, in this novel, her ego and her career goals do her in. Angry with Harry because he doesn’t want her to go to Bianca’s ball and because he won’t stop in the middle of a major spell to talk to her on the phone, she defies Harry’s warnings and slips into Bianca’s ball without an official invitation. Thus, she is also without official protection against attack. While there, she also bargains with a faerie to get part of Harry’s magic back without listening to Harry’s warnings about the “fine print” of the bargain.

As a direct result of both acts of stupidity, she loses her memory of what Harry means to her and she loses her humanity. As Michael said: “What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around.”

Using much of his little remaining magic, Harry helps Susan get the memories back and gets her away from Bianca’s lair alive. And, upon getting those memories back, how does Susan repay the man she swears that she loves? She leaves him in the hospital, poisoned almost unto death by vampire venom and mushroom toxin. She leaves him without a word and moves away from Chicago without a forwarding address.

When Harry is well enough to track her down, she tells him that she loves him, kisses him to sexual distraction, gets ups and walks away, saying “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” Bianca may not have been able to kill Harry’s body, but through Susan, she has killed his heart. Harry is now a disheveled and broken man.

I have not researched the series far enough to know if Butcher brings Susan back, but I certainly hope not. With the vampires calling for war unless the White Council hands him over for execution, Harry deserves better than Susan. He deserves someone at his back, not at his throat, literally or figuratively.

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Shadows of Bourbon Street

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“I LIED”

5 STARS

At the end of the previous novel in Deanna Chase’s Jade Calhoun series, the Angel Council blackmailed Jade Calhoun and Kane Rouquette into becoming shadow walker agents for the council. Jade’s fractured half-soul, a condition caused by the Council itself, was in imminent danger of being completely possessed by the ghost of a murdered sex witch and needed to be healed. Since Jade possesses angel blood, only the Angel Council could approve and conduct such a procedure.

So a very nasty version of quid pro quo is demanded. The Angel Council agrees to heal Jade’s soul if she and Kane will commit to eternal servitude to the Council. Since her only other choice is death, Jade and Kane agree and are transformed into eternal mates and shadow walkers.

As I read this ending, I was perplexed as to why the Council wanted Kane, who is only a dreamwalker, as part of the deal. Well, in this novel, we find out exactly why they want Kane. We learn what they deliberately chose not to tell Jade and Kane prior to the healing and bonding. And we come to know that the angels in this series are not the kinfolk of those spirits rife in the Debbie Macomber books. As Jade and the reader finally realize, the physical, ethical and moral boundaries between Chase’s angels and their demon counterparts are thinner than a hair’s breadth.

As this novel begins, several weeks have passed since the bonding procedure. It is Jade’s and Kane’s wedding day, with honeymoon to Italy planned, and shadow walker training to begin shortly thereafter. Just as the minister asks the age-old question of whether anyone has an objection to the marriage, Chessandra and Drake, from the Angel Council, blast into the ceremony. And, just like that, the wedding is aborted and our principle characters are spirited into another dimension.

It seems that Chessandra’s sister, Matisse, is a witch working for the Council and Matisse has been caught in a shadow realm by a failed spell. No other shadow walkers have been able to retrieve her and she is near death. Wedding day or not, Jade and Kane are ordered into the breach.

Needless to say, this early into the book, the rescue attempt fails. In fact, only Jade makes it into where Matisse is located. Kane is thrown back into the real world because Matisse is not in the shadows. She is in a different plane of existence altogether, not Hell, not Purgatory, but a void. And dreamwalkers cannot travel between the different realms.

When even Jade is unable to return Matisse to the present, she and Kane begin asking some serious questions as to why Matisse is really there. They learn that Matisse is not only Chessandra’s sister, she is also the niece of the coven leader for the Coven Pointe witches in New Orleans. Now, Jade has never heard of this coven, a group literally in her own backyard. No one in her own coven has ever mentioned the slightest word about the existence of other witches in the area.

When Jade and Kane approach Dayla, the other coven’s leader, to get information on Matisse, Dayla, without warning, brutally attacks Jade with potentially lethal spells. Barely surviving the attack, Jade realizes why her coven has shunned these other witches. The Coven Pointe members are sex witches, a type of witch who derives her power, not from the earth, but from successful sexual congress. And Jade quickly discovers that this group will use anybody in any manner to get their power and they will use that power in any way they see fit to achieve their goals, regardless of who it hurts. They are not black witches, but they are not the nicest souls in the universe either.

Before Jade can get the answers she needs, Dayla puts a binding spell on her powers and captures Kane into a trance. What Dayla knows – and what Chessandra has failed to tell Kane – is that dreamwalking is not really a psychic phenomenon, as Kane believes. Dreamwalking is actually a genetic trait possessed by a supernatural being whose true nature and consciousness lies dormant until it is unleashed by a sex witch. And Dayla unlocks Kane’s dormant creature against Kane’s will.

At this point, Deanna Chase does far more than just curve the story arc in a new direction or throw in a slight twist to capture the reader’s attention. The bombshell she levels on the reader, and on the lives of Jade and Kane, is nothing short of being literally mind-altering, body-bending and potentially lethal – particularly to Jade.

Do not expect to get much done in your daily life from this point on. Sleep is definitely out of the question. Just this one twist alone is enough to give you high blood pressure, if you don’t have it already. By the time Chase expands this new plotline and deals with several issues recurring from previous books that leech into this storyline, you will be exhausted from the non-stop tension and fear. And there are at least three characters, including Dayla, and particularly Dayla, that you will want to snatch right out of your book or reader and choke into oblivion.

By the end of the tale, you may well be looking over your own shoulder, waiting for the next attack. You will definitely be wary of calling the ending an HEA. Quite frankly, the outright lies generated, the lies of omission discovered and the change in Kane’s supernatural status do not bode well for the newly established Rouquette family. But, in any event, for better or for worse, Chase’s next novel in the series should be quite the adventure.

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Vampire Sun

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THE DIAMOND MEDALLION

4 STARS

As our story opens, Samantha Moon has two major problems, one professional and one personal. The professional problem ensues from being hired by a distraught husband whose wife disappeared three weeks prior. Now, spousal disappearances are relatively common compared to other potential tragedies, but this woman disappeared from a Starbucks. She went in, she ordered, she headed toward the bathroom and then was never seen again. The surveillance tape clearly shows her entering the store but it never shows her leaving, not by any entrance or window. The woman has fine and truly disappeared, as in “Beam me up, Scotty” disappeared.

The personal problem is far nastier, however. The demon inside Sam, the entity that makes her a vampire, is getting stronger every day. The demon’s thoughts are coming through more often and it is getting harder for Sam to distinguish between her own ideas and those of the demon. Sam is beginning to enjoy the taste of the animal blood she used to despise. She finds herself evaluating people as potential straight-from-the-vein sources of nutrition. And she no longer abhors the sight of death. In fact, she’s beginning to think that violent death is normal.

Sam knows that she has to retrieve the Diamond Medallion soon. She knows that she is only one slip-up, one crack in the armor, from losing her soul completely to the demon. Activating the medallion will force the demon from her body, will negate the need for drinking blood, and yet will allow Sam to retain all her other vampire skills and her immortality. And Sam has learned that Fang is the only person who knows where the medallion is located. Oh, joy!

J. R. Rain stated earlier this year that “Vampire Sun” would be the final entry in the Samantha Moon series. He has since rescinded that decision, with several more entries now in the works. However, had this actually been the final book, it would have been a fine last hurrah. This novella brings together all the major themes from previous times – her work, her resident demon, the four medallions, her guardian angel, the Librarian, Fang, and Talos (the bat creature). Her children are still struggling with their grief over the recent murder of their father. Her son’s super-human strength is still growing. And then there’s Kingsley.

Each of these plot lines is resolved satisfactorily, if not perfectly, by the end of the story. As stated previously, Rain intended it to be the last. But apparently, those imperfections provided Rain with a jumping-off point for yet another story arc. And, of course, as long as there is life, there is always another tale to tell.

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Dark Side of the Moon

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THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING

4 STARS

It has been a little over a month since the conclusion of “Moon River.” Samantha finds herself alone, truly alone. Her kids are away at camp. Sam’s sister is still recovering psychologically from her kidnapping and doesn’t want Sam around too much at this time. Danny is dead and Fang is both physically and emotionally distant, no longer sharing a mind link with Sam.

So Sam decides to summon the bat creature and go for a night flight – to the moon. And for the first time, she is able to communicate with the creature. Then again, it’s the first time she’s tried. As they fly higher, together in mind and body, Sam questions the creature about his life, his plane of existence and his relationship to her.

In a little over 30 pages, J.R. Rain uses Sam and Talos to explore the concept of a soul, its creation and its life force. He also uses their communication to explore the difference between true limitations and perceived limitations. And for Sam, with the power of positive thinking, “Fly Me to the Moon” becomes more than the title of an old song.

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