Death Masks

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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.


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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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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Hex Appeal

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Jazz Tremaine is having nightmares, terrible nightmares. These are the kind of night terrors where you wake up sweaty and scared, remembering every detail and still able to feel every touch, every blow, hours after the fact. Her first one is so real, so physical, with the only other person in the dream being her boyfriend, that she accuses Nick Gregory of actually attacking her. Mistake #1!

Never mind the fact that as she roars awake, Nick is solidly asleep beside her. It takes hours for Jazz to convince herself that the attack was not real and she makes the appropriate apologies to Nick. However, she doesn’t give him the details behind her initial accusation. Mistake #2!

Trying to chalk the nightmare up to spicy food and graphic videos just before bed, Jazz attempts to get on about her daily routine. Unfortunately, this is not meant to be as Jazz’s wards are accused of the disappearance and apparent murder of a local carnival worker. She secrets the wards away but does not start her investigation into the charges immediately. Mistake #3!

Fortunately for the two wards, Jazz and Nick are not your typical couple. Jazz is a powerful witch, over 700 years old, and Nick is centuries older than that and a vampire. Because of her heritage and her potential, Jazz has suffered innumerable indignities and tragedies even at the hands of her own kind. And Nick has been an Enforcer with the vampire Protectorate for longer than Jazz has been alive. Self-employed, Jazz uses her skills to eliminate curses and spells put upon others and Nick has his own PI business, supposedly retired from Protectorate service.

And currently, someone wants Jazz, and probably Nick, dishonored, disenfranchised, destroyed mentally and physically, and ashes-to-ashes dead. Jazz and Nick don’t know it yet, but we, as readers, are informed early on that that is the case. We just don’t know who or why. Thus, as we read, every scene involving the dreams, the feeling Jazz has of a malevolent presence close enough to touch but not see, and even the framing of the wards is colored by our omniscience. Needless to say, we are faced with hundreds of pages of ever-ratcheting tension.

 This is not a standalone novel. In this 2nd entry in the series, Linda Wisdom makes repeated references to incidents that occurred in the 1st novel, without any synopsis or adequate background. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you read that entry first, or if it has been awhile since you read it, go back and quickly review the action. There is a definite correlation between what was and what now is.

Another tack that Linda Wisdom has taken with this book is to make our main protagonist, Jazz, an obnoxious “witch.” And I mean that both literally and figuratively. In the first novel, as we obtain her backstory, we can somewhat understand her emotional state. But in this novel, Wisdom has taken her character over the top, past snark and quick-wittedness, to an in-your-fact offensiveness that grates like fingernails scraping across a board.

Jazz’s anger is always at the tip of her tongue and at the tips of her fingers, ready to unleash her acid words or her witchflame at the slightest provocation. It is no wonder so many supernatural creatures despise her and that she has so few friends. And those same characteristics that make the others think her troubles couldn’t happen to a better witch – her belligerence, her sarcasm, her aggressiveness, and her self-absorption – make it difficult for the reader to empathize with her, also. Even Nick loses his patience and compares her to a five-year-old. After 700 years, you would think that Jazz would have learned the difference between honey and vinegar and the decided advantage of think first, speak and act later. But that is not how Wisdom chooses to write the character and I found myself skimming past the snit fits.

So even as annoying as Linda Wisdom paints Jazz, even as inscrutable as she writes Nick, even as you scream for the characters to “just communicate already,” the mysteries involved are well worth the reading time. Childishness aside, you just can’t help but want to know who is trying to take down Jazz Tremaine this time. And while there is no cliffhanger, there are a lot of little hooks, details not cleaned up in this entry, which just might provide fodder for future novels.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Vampire Sun

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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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How To Seduce A Vampire (Without Really Trying)

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You know those books that, from the minute you read the very first page, you just can’t put down? Well, this isn’t one of them! When a book from a 1990’s series that I’d never started, written by an author that I’d never read before, came in from the public library, I looked from that old worn paperback to my iPad, back to the paperback and temporarily shelved the iPad – and with it “How to Seduce…” That’s just how ordinary and boring this 15th book by Kerrelyn Sparks struck me.

The storyline begins with Zoltan Czakvar, Coven Master of Europe, reminiscing about his 800-year-long search for the murderer of his father. His only clue is a strangely engraved arrow that he pulled from his father’s body. While engaged in this gruesome trip down memory lane – memories of strangely clad warriors, monsters, fire, the execution of his mother and the assassination of his father – Russell comes to Zoltan’s castle for his bi-weekly supply of blood and weapons. Zoltan sees an arrow in Russell’s pack that is virtually a duplicate of the one that killed his father.

And at this point, what could have been an exciting paranormal suspense slides right into oblivion. What we get instead is the formulaic Amazon-type women living in the formulaic hidden valley in the Himalayas, meshed with the formulaic cult-type Queen who has browbeat her immortal kin and followers into believing the formulaic notion that no man can be trusted and all men who enter their valley must die. Now add to that the age-old plotlines of the Black Widow Syndrome and the Fountain of Youth and you’ve got the general idea of the tripe you’re going to read in this book.

To add to the situation, it is not even well written tripe. The dialog and internal monologues of the two protagonists are repetitive, almost verbatim, from one scene to the next. The writing itself feels flat and is basically declarative summations of what has happened, not descriptive sentences of what is happening. For example, three separate skirmishes with Lord Liao’s men are described in less than two pages of space – on a Kindle app with enlarged font!

What does fill the majority of the pages is the excessive repetition of the main characters’ internal monologues, the continual and repetitive rantings of the Queen and the erotic descriptions of each of the “ten positions and ten climaxes” that Zoltan promises the warrior woman, Neona. And for the first time in this series, I did not feel the connection between the hero and the heroine. Their relationship basically feels surface bright and shiny, a lot of words expended but unable to express any depth of emotion.

In fact, the whole book feels superficial. It seems as if, after 14 previous paranormal suspense novels in this series, the author was scrambling for a new main storyline and got too close to her deadline for comfort. Thus, it seems she grabbed up a few “oldies-but-goodies” in the way of plotlines, wrote a basic outline, expanded the outline by a few paragraphs, repeated everything at least five times, threw in a little action in the last 20% and phoned it in to her editor.

Based on the attrition and reappearances of characters as well as the addition of a new race of shifters, there seems to be at least two more novels in the “Master Han” sub-plotline. Whether or not I purchase those novels or wait to get them from the library is very much in question. In fact, considering that this book is significantly below the caliber that I have come to expect from Kerrelyn Sparks, I many not read the next one at all.

Cover Art from Goodreads

On Thin Ice

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If an author is going to write a story that takes place in the Alaskan Bush, that author needs to either spend some time in said Bush or talk extensively with several people who have. My first uneasy suspicions arose when Lee described the plane that eventually crashed. Those suspicions increased when she described the area where the cabin was located and the cabin itself, never mentioning the need for the off-grid facilities that type of area usually demands. When she described a sled that had just transported three months of supplies as barely able to carry a 200-pound man, I really furrowed my brow. But when she called a vehicle a “snowmobile” instead of using the Alaskan term “snow machine,” I knew that Jessica Lee had probably never seen Alaska by any other means than a cruise ship.

There were other obvious research errors, particularly since Lee is clear to the reader that the story takes place in northwestern Alaska. Therefore, the natural travel patterns would involve Fairbanks, not Anchorage. Also, the distance between the Bush area and North Carolina is repeatedly referred to as 3000 miles and that one of the main protagonists travels this pattern several times in just one day. By car or by plane, 3000 miles will only get you from North Carolina to Washington State. And then you need to traverse Canada and the Yukon before you climb almost the entire state of Alaska to get to the region described – closer to 5000 miles than 3000. And that one day of travel? Even by plane, it’s at least two – one day to get down to the Lower Forty-Eight and another to get to North Carolina. Lee didn’t need to visit Alaska to get these facts straight. All she needed was a good map and the Delta Airlines website.

And then there are the editing errors. Missing words, misspellings, and incorrect words abound. And please, using the word “prostrate” instead of “prostate” in this genre is absolutely inexcusable.

Once you filter out the geographical and the cultural inconsistencies, the storyline is fairly substantial. Silas Murdock is the alpha for a pride of lion shifters in North Carolina. He is returning from a hunting expedition in the Alaskan Bush when one member of his party attempts to kill him but shoots the plane’s pilot instead. Though not a pilot himself, Silas tries to get the plane under control. But without sufficient altitude and with too great an airspeed, the plane crashes.

Dr. Theodore Lucas is nearly mowed down by the plane as it careens over his cabin. After arriving at the crash site, he finds only one survivor, Silas. Theo hauls Silas back to his cabin and is successful in treating his injuries. Himself a wolf shifter, he can tell that Silas is also a shifter, but he cannot tell what kind.

When Silas regains consciousness three days after the crash, he realizes two things – he doesn’t know WHERE he is and he doesn’t know WHO he is. And Theo realizes one more thing – Silas doesn’t know WHAT he is.

The remainder of this short novella revolves around the relationship that develops between Silas and Theo. The fight scenes and the shifter sequences are well done, concise and realistic. The sexual encounters are appropriately placed in the storyline and, while explicit, are neither crude nor gratuitous in nature.

Because of and through their relationship, Silas regains his memory and learns the identity of his enemy. Because of and through their relationship, Theo learns to deal with a past circumstance that had him leaving his Bush medical practice and his wolf pack. And both learn about second chances and the transcendence of love over genetics.

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