Blood Rites

Blood Rites_JimButcher_8181487

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Advertisements

Forged By Desire

Forged By Desire_BecMcMaster_17901769

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Death Masks

Death Masks_JimButcher_91479

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

‘Twas The Night Before Vampires’ Christmas

Twas The Night Before Vampires Christmas_MikeCecconi_19387794

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Lifeblood and Stone

Lifeblood and Stone_BreenaWilde_23706266

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Moon Dragon

Moon Dragon_JRRain_23285553

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.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Prince Of Hearts

Prince of Hearts_MargaretFoxe_18515966

DENIAL, THE WORD “NO” AND MORE DENIAL

3 STARS

The year is 1896 and the place is London. But this is not the Victorian England that we have studied in our history classes. This London, actually the entire world, is based on an alternative theory of history where the advent of the Steam Age created immediate, adverse and lethal environmental effects. As a result, the world’s population needs mechanical implants or other devices in order to survive. The most basic of these is the Iron Necklace, a device welded to the throat in order to protect the lungs from the contaminated air.

With circumstance being the mother of invention, scientists began experimenting with mechanical replacements for other body parts, such as arms, legs, eyes and hands. Even mechanically welded plates for breast enhancement and facelifts became available. The only device that has not been perfected for mechanized, welded replacement is the heart. Or so the world’s population thinks.

About 400 years previous, according to our author’s take on alternate history, Leonardo Da Vinci created 13 mechanical hearts and developed the technique for replacing a biological heart with a metal one. As a result, the owners of the new hearts became immortal. Before the 13th heart could be transplanted into the body of the chosen recipient, it was stolen by Ivan the Terrible and placed in his dying son’s chest.

The back alley surgery did not go quite as planned, leaving the son in a semi-coma for over a year and with a scar that wouldn’t quite heal. When the son regained his full consciousness, and, with it, his memories, he was not particularly pleased that his father had saved his life. Since dear old Dad had been the one who had tried to kill him in the first place, after murdering the son’s pregnant wife first, the son was a bit upset. The son bided his time, got his strength back, assassinated his father and fled Russia.

That son is one of our two main protagonists, Sasha Romanov. He has spent the last 300 years training first to be a doctor and then a psychiatrist. And now as a forensic criminologist, he spends his time hunting down psychopathic monsters like his father, monsters who maim, rape and kill just for the power and thrill of it. And for these same 300 years, spaced about 100 years apart, someone has been murdering innocents, ripping out their hearts and placing items near the bodies that would implicate Sasha in the deaths. So far, the frame-ups have not worked to get Sasha charged, however.

Now, the murders have begun again, only this time the killer has upped the stakes. The victims all have the same physical characteristics as Sasha’s secretary, Aline Finch, who is our tale’s other main protagonist.

Finch is in her early thirties, wears glasses and ugly, ill fitting, high-necked muddy brown dresses. She isn’t plain but she isn’t porcelain-doll beautiful either. She is an excellent personal assistant but she has had it with Sasha’s high-handed, demanding ways. She wants to be married, have the cottage with the picket fence, have the average 2.2 children and the dog, instead of traipsing all over the country picking up after his lordship. And now, an archeologist with whom she has been keeping company for several years has proposed marriage and a honeymoon-slash-bone dig in Egypt.

Finch accepted Charlie’s proposal almost a month ago, but she cannot seem to find what she thinks is the right time to tell Sasha that she is resigning. When she does tell him, it is in anger and he is so focused on leaving to investigate the first of the new murders that he doesn’t hear her. When he returns to London after a very bad time and narrow escape in Italy, he finds Finch gone.

Finch doesn’t know who or what Sasha is. In fact, no one in the general populace knows about the 12 Elders with the immortal hearts, the 13th immortal that is Sasha, the Blood Bond companions that the Elders can create, or the metallically fanged vampires that the Bonded companions can create. Actually, the Elders don’t know about the vampires either. And even knowing that someone is using her for bait to get to him, Sasha refuses to enlighten Finch to his circumstances.

Quite frankly, this book is full of thoughts, opinions and facts that Sasha and Finch do not “enlighten” each other with or even admit to themselves. Sasha is ashamed of who he came from and is scared senseless that he is or will become the same vicious monster that was his father. He has stuffed his emotions so far down for so many years, in an attempt to control what he feels is his hereditary bent, that he cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees when it comes to his attachment to Finch. It comes as an absolute shock to his buttoned up self that he loves her and has since she first came to work for him years ago.

But Finch is absolutely a pain to endure for the majority of the novel. Margaret Foxe has created in Finch a heroine who is obnoxious rather than strong. She assumes that she knows exactly what everyone, particularly Sasha, thinks or feels and why. She bases her thoughts and actions on what society says she ought to believe and do, rather than heed her good sense, intuition and reality.

Even reminding myself that the story is set in Victorian England, even if it is an alternative version of the age, did not help my opinion of Finch. Her self-righteousness is her worst enemy, just barely edging out for that position her constant use of the word “No.” And even though Sasha uses the word “No” quite often also, it is much easier, considering the circumstances of his immortality, to understand and sympathize with his need for secrecy and even for his need to martyr himself, physically and emotionally, in order to save Finch.

I could even understand Finch initially, considering the time period. But after about the umpteenth time her high-toned denials and presumptions sabotaged both herself and Sasha, I lost all regard for the character at all. Of course, Margaret Foxe writes the defining moment when Finch sees all her mistakes and understands that she has loved Sasha all along. Foxe has Finch finally recognize her own cowardice and culpability in the physical and emotional debacle that is their lives and act on that recognition in a positive manner. Unfortunately, the eye-opening realization comes about 150 pages too late to rescue my opinion of the heroine.

Foxe has created a structured and understandable alternate reality for her steampunk genre series opener. Unfortunately, I hesitate to purchase the next book new for fear I will get a repeat of the “egocentric, whining heroine” formula. Perhaps a library copy would be a better choice.

But on a positive note, if this book could be judged by its cover, it would rate 5 stars. I rarely let a cover sway me, but this one is fantastic, one of the few lately that have stood out in design, coloration, focus and meaningfulness to a storyline.

Cover Art From Goodreads