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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Forged By Desire

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SECRETS TO DIE FOR

5 STARS

Garrett Reed, Acting Master of the Nighthawks, has a secret, a dangerous and lethal secret. Only weeks ago, an Echelon lord, in a chemically induced blood frenzy, shattered Garrett’s chest and literally dragged his heart halfway out before he was subdued. In order to heal such an extensive injury, the virus that makes him the blue-blooded vampire-like creature that he is had to go into overdrive.

Now, Garrett’s craving virus percentage has nearly doubled and is still rising in small increments daily. At this current rate, in just mere weeks he will be unable to control his need for blood and will become a danger to anyone around him. And because he is leader of the Nighthawks, he will not simply be incarcerated and forced to die of starvation, he will be summarily beheaded.

However, that’s not the only secret he has to keep. He has been partners in the Nighthawks with Perry Lowell for nine years. And during a recent sting operation, Garrett discovered that Perry is a woman. Now, he’s always known that Perry is female, the only one in the Nighthawks, in fact, and one of the few female blue-bloods in existence. But she has always worn the men’s leather uniform and armor, has a man’s haircut, and fights with all the deadliness and strength of a male blue-blood. She is his best tracker and his best friend.

However, when she dons a formal flowing gown for the sting operation and he observes her ability to function socially and flirtatiously in Echelon society, Garrett sees the “woman.” And he is lost, wanting more than friendship but afraid his virus levels will cause him to kill her. So he pushes her away onto a new partner, determined to keep all his secrets and keep her safe.

Well, Perry Lowell has some secrets, too. Nine years of them, in fact. The first is that she has loved Garrett all of those nine years. Knowing, however, that he only saw her as a partner and friend, she has kept her feelings hidden. Then, after he acknowledges her desirability during the sting operation, but summarily shoves her away before she can reciprocate, Perry decides that her feelings will just have to stay a secret after all.

If unrequited love were Perry’s only secret, life would be a cinch for her. Nine years ago, she faked her death to escape the sadistic attentions of the Duke of Moncrieff, with whom she had been forced by her father to make a blood and flesh rights thrall contract. Perry had discovered that Moncrieff sponsored a psychopathic doctor in his experiments to develop mechanical body parts. When Perry protested the experiments on live and unwilling subjects, she became one of the “experiments.”

Forcibly infected with the craving virus, Perry was repeatedly sliced and diced so that the doctor could document the healing effect of the virus. But the doctor didn’t count on the increased strength caused by the virus, a defective restraint buckle or Perry’s skills with a blade, and Perry escaped, thinking that she had killed the doctor. Moncrieff was suspected of murder when she disappeared and was sentenced to exile in Scotland for 10 years.

Now, Moncrieff is back, not only pardoned by the Prince Consort but appointed to the ruling Council. And Perry, while investigating the deaths of two Echelon debutantes, falls through a trap door in a factory floor, horrified to find herself in an exact duplicate of the laboratory where Moncrieff’s doctor had tortured her so long ago.

Bec McMaster writes a compelling and pulse-pounding tale about the effects that keeping secrets have, not only on the person who has the secrets but on the people from whom those secrets are kept. She delves intimately into the motivations, both selfless and self-serving, for keeping those secrets, even in the face of emotional or physical death.

The author is masterful in her timing and in the phrasing of each secret’s reveal. The frustration and the tension she builds as you witness the effects of the lies of omission, as you wait for each secret to be divulged and acted upon, makes this a page-turner.

While the story may be set in an alternate history, or steampunk, version of 1800’s England, the bulk of the story is pointed more toward the emotional realm than the science fiction one. The scientific and medical technology in use is a parallel, though crude, version of today’s devices, from tape recorders and ear bud communicators to artificial hearts and blood dialysis. Thus, little suspension of disbelief is required, beyond a belief in the supernatural itself, to feel at home with the storyline.

This book is the 4th full-length novel in McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it is definitely not a standalone book. In fact, this story arc is highly dependent upon the reader’s memory of the events that transpired in the 3rd novel, “My Lady Quicksilver.” Without that background, you will not sufficiently understand the Nighthawks or the dynamics between Garrett and Lynch, Garrett’s former and long-time commander, that fuel a lot of this story. And without that point of reference, it may be lost on you why certain characters believe it absolutely necessary to sacrifice blood, breath and soul in order to continue another’s survival.

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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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‘Twas The Night Before Vampires’ Christmas

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TWISTED BUT COOL

4 STARS

Every year at least one parody on Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” commonly called “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” comes to light. This year, the first one to catch my attention is written by Mike Cecconi.

The parody is available as a standalone purchase, but I happened upon it at the end of P.D. Lake’s “Santa’s Little Heist.” It seems to be a bit longer than the version it parodies and it does not always match the original cadence, but the story it tells works nevertheless.

And, as I was quietly smiling and enjoying Cecconi’s take on Santa vs. the Vampires, I suddenly found myself laughing aloud, tears streaming down my cheeks, at the visual from one stanza near the end. And I quote:

“With Rudolph’s nose set to ‘simulate sunlight,’

Thousands went up like fireworks into the night;

Included in the vampires’ incidental losses

Were the deaths from Christmas displays involving crosses.”

For those of us who truly believe, whether it be in vampires or in Santa, this parody hits the mark.

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The Dead Detective

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GOOD COP, BAD COP, DEAD COP

4 STARS

In this first entry in their Dead Detective series, J.R. Rain and Ron Kierkegaard, Jr., provided me with my first literary venture into the idea of zombies. Not being much for horror movies, I have studiously avoided books that stereotyped zombies and ghouls as brain-eating, flesh-devouring mindless killers with body parts and flesh falling off at regular intervals.

Then along comes an email from J.R. Rain promoting this new collaboration called “The Dead Detective.” The promotional blurb casually mentions that the novel’s heroine has been murdered and then reanimated as a zombie assassin. However, having read and enjoyed many of Rain’s paranormal works, I figured that this “zombie” situation was probably not going to fit that typical stereotype. So I took the plunge, bought the book and found out that I was right.

As the story opens, Robbery-Homicide Detective Richelle Dadd regains consciousness in an abandoned warehouse with a chalk outline drawn around her body. The whole crew is there, from the detectives to the crime scene techs to the coroner’s assistants. She has no idea how she got there, but the scene smacks to her of an elaborate joke – her fellow officers punking her, maybe as a prank prior to her impending promotion to Sergeant.

However, Richelle is hard pressed to explain the neat hole right through her heart, no blood pressure, no pulse and a bullet rattling around inside her ribcage. As best she can tell, after she calms down, someone somehow lured her to the warehouse, put a bullet into her specifically to damage the heart and the heart only, and then reanimated her in some as yet unexplained manner. The “what” is terrifying enough to Richelle, but it’s the “why” that confounds her and drives the remainder of the story.

So Richelle is now a member of the undead. She is weakened by sunlight yet can eat and drink normally with no unusual cravings. However, she can also see and talk to ghosts and she can see another worldly dimension superimposed over the “normal” one.

But for Richelle, these are just another set of problems to deal with. Undead or not, she has a cheating husband to divorce, a mortgage to pay, a cat to retain custody of, her murderer to find and the motive behind her transformation to determine. And, of course, she still has her regular caseload in the Robbery-Homicide Division to deal with.

As this is the first entry in the series, Rain and Kierkegaard do a lot of world building in the first half of the novel. But it does not come in the form of traditional third-person info dumps. This story is written from Richelle’s first-person POV; therefore the reader does not get the information any faster than she does. So, as she treats her condition symptomatically and works to solve her murder, her new world makes its appearance in fits and bursts.

At first, this method of introducing a supernatural/paranormal existence feels very jerky and confusing. But when Richelle is able to tie her murder to an old case involving Romani gypsies, teams up with a ghostly cop who was killed in the line of duty decades past, and learns from her mother the truth about her own gypsy heritage, the world that Rain/Kierkegaard has been alluding to cleanly snaps into place.

From this point on, it is all about Richelle finding and stopping the perpetrators before they create more zombie cops and solving a series of connected crimes. It is also about the rigors of surviving physically intact in a world where she can be horrifically and permanently damaged but never killed.

The worlds of the living, the undead and the truly dead are so entwined and built up, using gypsy legend and Jewish/Middle Eastern history, that they feel plausible, with very little suspension of disbelief required. Of course, in the case of this novel, it doesn’t hurt if you truly have an open mind about the plausibility and possibility of curses, hypnotic suggestions, telepathic control, ghosts, and transmigration of souls. But then, who would willingly embark upon a read about vampires, shifters, ghosts, witches or zombies if they didn’t!

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Lifeblood and Stone

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PARANORMAL, EROTIC AND, THANKFULLY, VERY SHORT

2 STARS

Sometimes literary brevity can be a blessing.

“Lifeblood and Stone” is Breena Wilde’s very short – as in only 15 pages – introduction to her Moth Society series. In this entry, we meet Michael Lifeblood, one of the governing partners of the law firm, Lifeblood and Stone. We also meet Amanda, who is a fast-rising attorney in Lifeblood’s firm. It is Amanda’s POV through which we experience the events that unfold.

These events take place over two scenes, one of which serves to place the characters at the law firm’s annual Halloween masquerade ball. This section is very well written and sets the stage perfectly. The other scene is for Lifeblood and Amanda’s sexual encounter, or should I say, “encounters.” And this section is written about as poorly as I have seen in some years.

In this second scene, Wilde pens four separate and different sexual interactions within a span of approximately 10 pages. And each is graphically and luridly described with gutter-level verbiage.

Now, I am no prude. I possess a few favorite expressions of my own. I also feel that erotic scenes that are well placed in a story arc can be both a delight and good transition points. But this was overkill, too much in too little space, and it came across as oily, smarmy and dirty rather than hot and steamy.

Now, before I ever started the short, I knew the genre was listed as paranormal erotica and the promotional blurb included a maturity warning. But, frankly, by the time I got to the paranormal part – and the name “Lifeblood” is a big clue here – I felt I needed to wash my brain out with soap.

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The Vicarage Bench Anthology

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A RED ROSE, A WHITE ROSE AND A PINK ROSE

4 STARS

In the small village of Bury, England, a rose bush grows behind a bench outside the church vicarage. That rose bush is special, and not just because it blooms in three different colors – red, white and pink. That rose bush has the ability, with the prick of one of its thorns, to transport the spirit of one person into another person’s body. That prick also leaves the body of the soul traveler comatose.

In the first story of the anthology, “She’s Me,” the bush works its magic on Jenna McBride, a bratty supermodel, and Lucy McGillicuddy, a dowdy librarian. Dr. John Norman, the town’s new physician, and Jake Dadson, Jenna’s manager, work hard to solve the problem of the co-joined spirits, but the red rose has other plans for the time being. And those plans include a total psychological makeover for both women and a dual romance, Dr. Norman with Lucy and Jake with Jenna. Those plans also include Dr. Tobias Andrews, an area psychiatrist, who is destined to solve the mystery of how to separate the spirits.

The second story, “He’s Her,” involves a powerful but bitter Las Vegas casino owner, Rhett Parks, and Carrie Temple, a schoolteacher who is treated like a doormat because she continually tries to be nice. When Carrie pricks her finger on a rose thorn, she drops the rose as she slips dizzily onto the bench. When Rhett, who is sitting on that same bench, picks up the rose Carrie dropped, the thorn also pricks him. And, voila! Rhett’s spirit is now lodged firmly in Carrie’s brain. When bitter and angry must live in the same body with sweetness and light, something has to change. And the rose, with Dr. Andrews’ help, has plans for just that.

In the third story, “We’re One,” Ashley Parks, the brother of Rhett Parks, finds himself needing to save the woman he loves from the maniacal enforcer of a rival Las Vegas casino owner. Knowing what happened to his brother – and the HEA that Rhett and Carrie achieved – by way of the rose bush, Ashley flees with Crystal Davis to Bury, England, Dr. Andrews, the vicarage bench and the thorns of the pink rose bloom. Unfortunately, Ashley doesn’t tell Crystal what he’s going to do before he does it and she is not pleased, not a bit happy at all, when she finds her spirit looking out through Ashley’s eyes. And when the sociopathic enforcer and his partner fall into the rose bush while chasing Ashley/Carrie, both getting pricked by the same bloom, the story takes on a whole new twist. Dr. Andrews and the rose bush have their work cut out for them this time!

It is important for the reader to know that this anthology is a collection of sequential short stories. The first entry is very short, about 50 pages, while the second and third are about 85 pages each. And neither the second nor third entries are standalones. The events presented in them presume that you have read the first story and no synopsis of previous events or any backstory of previous characters is provided in subsequent entries.

The whole anthology can be read in a day. However, I honestly feel that you will enjoy the series more if you read the entries over three different days.

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