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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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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We’re One

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OH, THAT POOR ROSE BUSH!

4 STARS

As this third entry in the Vicarage Bench series opens, we find Ashley Parks being assaulted by three thugs in an alleyway. Ashley is the brother of Rhett Parks, the Las Vegas casino owner who was the male protagonist in the previous novella, “He’s Her.” Now, Ashley, the manager of his brother’s casino and a secondary character previously, gets his own story and it does not start out nicely for Ashley.

The three thugs have been sent by a rival casino owner to “persuade” Ashley not to hire any of their employees, especially the females, who come looking for a new job. These guys are apparently unaware of Ashley’s personal training program and he is not nearly as hurt as he pretends to be. He is just about to take out his main attacker when a whirling dervish wielding a baseball bat comes out of the darkness and decimates the cretin.

As the brute goes down, Ashley seizes his chance, the bat and the slender lad, making a run for it. When he feels that they have gotten far enough away, he sets the lad down, only to find that it’s not a lad at all. Ashley’s rescuer is a lithe, beautiful woman with her long golden hair tucked firmly up in a ball cap.

Ashley is immediately smitten and then is devastated when she sends him packing after patching up his cuts. All he knows is her name and that she works in another casino. But those emotions are nothing compared to what he feels when he learns that Crystal Davis is the Ice Princess, the headliner for the casino owned by the man who ordered his beating.

Ashley has learned that Arnie, the thug Crystal bashed, has vowed to use any means possible to identify his attacker. Arnie has also vowed to kill said attacker. So Ashley snatches Crystal up and flees with her straight to Dr. Andrews, the vicarage bench and the rose bush. But it is only after Crystal’s spirit is ensconced in Ashley’s body and her comatose body safely hidden away from Arnie, that Ashley learns that the rival casino’s manager has forbidden Arnie to kill his headliner. He will just have to settle for killing Ashley instead!

Mimi Barbour expands the magical properties of the rose bush significantly in this entry. We learn the answer to the question that was subliminally presented in the previous work – what happens to the spirit if the comatose body dies while the body and spirit are separated? And while we have, on several occasions, seen the results of the rose bush interacting with the unwitting, in this story we get a glimpse of what happens when it interacts with the unwilling and with the inhuman.

This series may be focused on time and space differentials with a touch of magic worked in, however, there is no alternate reality or science fiction involved. Therefore, magic just cannot cover a mistake Barbour makes in this story with regards to technology. Watch for the rival casino’s manager to use a cell phone – in 1969!

However, as in the previous story of the series, the final page is the best. It is both horrific and hilarious at the same time. And what a promise it bears of things to come.

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She’s Me

Grunge color texture, blue and brown color

OPPOSITES, AND ALL THAT

3 STARS

Jenna McBride is a world-famous, much in demand supermodel. She has a beautiful face, a marvelously thin and toned body and the personality of a run-over rattlesnake.

While she may have been born a beautiful child, she is, as a young adult, still beautiful because she takes good care of her face, her hair and her skin. She has that marvelously thin body, not because of drugs or anorexia, but because of a healthy, low-calorie diet and specifically targeted physical exercises. And she has the vicious personality as self-protection against a world, a world that includes her parents and social companions, which sees her only as a sex object and a bankroll.

Then, one fateful day, after finishing a photo shoot in the English countryside, Jenna pricks her finger on a rose’s thorn just as she sits down on a bench in front of an old vicarage. And, just like that, Jenna’s body slips into a coma and her spirit is transported back 43 years to 1963. She finds herself on that same bench, but that’s all she recognizes.

Jenna’s spirit is now trapped in the body of a young woman who is the complete antithesis of herself – plump, homely and painfully shy. It seems Lucy McGillicuddy pricked her finger on a rose’s thorn by the same vicarage bench at the very same time as Jenna, just decades apart in time. Now, two spirits must learn to live together and thrive together until they can find a way for Jenna to return to her own time.

Mimi Barbour presents a marvelous set-up for a time-travel fantasy and subsequent double romance. But she tries to execute it in only 55 pages. That is simply not enough space to transition cleanly and clearly from an initial diagnosis of multiple personality disorder by the doctors treating Lucy to an acceptance by those same doctors that both Jenna and time travel are real. And it is not enough space to adequately deal with either the return of the spirits to their own time or with the double romance that occurs while Jenna and Lucy are entwined.

Thus, scene transitions are often sloppy and confusing. Several pivotal conversations are truncated, leaving a feeling of “what just happened here?” And, in the denouement, an action that Lucy doesn’t take is definitely dramatic in terms of creating tension but does not jibe with the final scene.

Quite frankly, if the author had just used another 30 pages for some fine-tuning and some fleshing out, this story would have been a five-star read.

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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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