Sunday, August 8, 2010

mix of celtic folklore & australia in new urban fantasy secret ones by nicole murphy

Finally, finally, an urban fantasy novel with something new to say. Secret Ones by Nicole Murphy is an interesting mix of Celtic folklore and imagination; and set in Australia, it has a different background to add to to it. 
Murphy is an Australian author who's worked as a teacher and journalist, as well as being instrumental in a number of “fandom” projects; she's also been a speculative fiction editor.
So one would assume she would know something about writing a good piece of urban, or speculative, fiction. Thankfully she does.
The “Secret Ones” of the title are the “gadda”, a people who while they look human; aren't. They can wield magic by borrowing energy from nature and using various spells.
Murphy's “gadda” are somewhat akin to the Celtic traditions of elves, there's an Irish connection – that seems to be where they come from – and general references to Celtic cultural practice as well.
Still, the concept is relatively fresh – although Laurell K Hamilton did it first with the Sidhe – elves or fey – living in modern America in her Merry Gentry series of books.
The addition of Australia is nice; better than yet another urban fantasy set in America. And the characters that Murphy has created are well-rounded and believable.
Maggie Shaunessy is an Australian-born gadda who has a history of protecting humans and working with humans – something that is looked down upon by another group of gadda who would prefer to stay “Pure” and have nothing to do with humans at all.
Maggie's family – at least her mother and grandfather – live in Australia and interact daily with humans, running a university and a medical clinic and trying to help them. Maggie's father is in Ireland, he's more traditional and possibly one of the Purists.
Added to the mix is a newcomer – and a love interest for Maggie, of course – Lucas Valeroso, a physicist who's from the wrong side of the tracks entirely, and totally unaware that he might not be entirely human.
Murphy mixes up black magic, stolen books, political machinations, historical feuds and romance with a vaguely recognisable Celtic mythology, to create an urban fantasy story that is relatively fresh for the reader.
Some of the descriptions and Maggie's musings are a bit clunky, but the dialogue is good, as is the pacing. There's not much of a twist to the plot, the reader is fairly certain where it's all leading by about halfway through, but it's a fun read nonetheless.
Secret Ones is the first book in what's shaping up to be at least a trilogy, if not a series; it will be interesting to see how it develops.

Secret Ones by Nicole Murphy is published by Harper Voyager and is available from good book stores and online.

firespell by chloe neill; another clichéd young adult urban fantasy novel

The latest Young Adult supernatural series to take off is The Dark Elite by Chloe Neill, with Firespell the first book to be published. 
Set in Chicago, the story follows teenager Lily Parker as she's sent off to boarding school while her parents head to Italy for a research posting of some sort. 
Lily is bemused but resigned to her new life until she discovers that her new BFF (Best Friend Forever), a girl called Scout who's been at the school her whole life, is sneaking out of their dorm and staying out all night.
Naturally Lily decides to follow her, only to discover that Scout isn't just her new friend, she's also part of a magic wielding group of teens who chase down and destroy monsters in the tunnels under the city.
So far, so typical. And unfortunately, that's about all that can be said for Firespell.
It's not terribly written, the characters are solid, believable teenagers – although the 'in' crowd of girls seem plucked from any angsty movie – there's something going on with the headmistress – who may or may not know what the kids are up to – and the plot's premise – you can only use your magic until you're 25, otherwise you begin to suck the life from others and become evil – isn't too clichéd.
However, the assumption of Lily accepting magic without a nervous breakdown, the seeming unconcern of adults about kids risking their lives every day, the placing of the story in a boarding school and the automatic success of these kids in getting the baddies, is all a bit trite. It reads like an American version of Harry Potter – and not in a good way.
Basically Firespell is yet another in a long line of recent series for Young Adults spiced with a bit of the supernatural. There's nothing really new going on – at least not yet. Perhaps the series will mature; but with such weak underpinnings, I doubt it.

Firespell by Chloe Neill is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

ann aguirre continues the corine solomon story in hell fire; action, thrills & the supernatural

Hell Fire returns readers to Ann Aguirre's Corine Solomon series begun in Blue Diablo. Corine helped her ex, Chance, find his mother with her ability to 'handle' objects or read information and emotions from things left behind. 

Read my review of Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre: Ann Aguirre's Blue Diablo brings new dimension to overcrowded urban fantasy genre 

So now Chance has to return with Corine to the town she was born in, Kilmer, and discover the reason behind her mother's terrible death. 
Aguirre's world is peopled by characters who can use magic, who are born with various sorts of powers, like Corine's 'handling', Chance's incredible good luck and others' abilities as empaths and mediums.
But her world is also our world; there are bills to pay, papers to sign, businesses to run and emotional relationships to deal with. 
Unlike many recent books in the urban fantasy genre, Aguirre doesn't dwell on the sex and romance too much. For her characters and storylines the love and romance is simply a part of being human.
Corine is an ordinary woman with an extraordinary gift, but she's troubled by the same insecurities we are. Is her arse too big? Does Chance really love her or he just after her talents? Was her mother really murdered?
OK, maybe not the same issues as all of us. Still, it's refreshing to read an urban fantasy novel without having to deal with too much unreality.
When Corine and Chance finally get to Kilmer they discover a town that's been forgotten; literally. No one else can find it on the map, it's not on the GPS nor has anything been added to it since Corine left when she was a teen.
Obviously there's something going on, even without Corine's memories of her mother being burned to death by people in dark hooded cloaks.
The pair also discover that over the years people have been going missing, and no body, not even the police, can be bothered going into the forest to look for them. 
Obviously that's where Corine is headed, but first she needs to find somewhere to stay where the landlady won't try to hex her, get Chance out of jail from being in the wrong place when an old lady died and try to solve the issue of whether or not she's going to sleep with her new magical friend Jesse.
Aguirre's storylines mix up action, thrills and esoteric magic in a clever way that enables the reader to easily slip into her world. It will be interesting to see how the series develops; book three is already on its way.

Hell Fire by Ann Aguirre is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

more psy-changeling action & romance from nalini singh in caressed by ice

New Zealand-based author Nalini Singh returns to her world of Psy – humans who have psychic powers and no emotions – and Changelings – were-animals.
In the first two books of the series, Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat, two Psy women who were fighting to remain sane and a part of their emotionally barren world, fall in love with two were-animals – a werewolf and a werejaguar – while fighting to both stay alive and hunt down someone who's killing Changeling girls.

Read my review of Nalini Singh's Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat: Nalani Singh's Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat from her Psy-Changeling series offer romantic urban fiction with a little bit of bite 

In the latest book, Caressed by Ice, readers meet one of those girls. Brenna Shane Kincaid was abducted by an insane Psy who raped her mind and damaged her terribly before she was rescued by a combined group of Changelings and renegade Psy. 
Now trying to recover both physically and mentally, Brenna is trapped by the solicitousness of her family and friends. The only person she feels comfortable with, oddly enough, is one of the renegade Psy, Judd Lauren.
Unfortunately for Brenna, although Judd has removed himself from the Psy-Net – the link that keeps the Psy in touch no matter where they are – he did so only for his family. He's continued to use and rely on the "conditioning" that has controlled his emotions all his life.
Because Judd has a secret; not only is he renegade Psy, he's also a a former 'Arrow', a psy-assassin.
Like Singh's previous books, the Psy-Changeling world is more a decoration for what is essentially a romance novel. The fiery Brenna will eventually melt the ice-cold assassin.
However Singh's addition of political manoeuvring among the Psy Council, the continued concerns about insane Psy running around hurting people and the attempts by Judd's contacts to try to sabotage the Psy-Net, all add a bit of action and intrigue to what could have been a boring concept.
Singh proved in her other series, Guild Hunter, that she's capable of more than just romance. Angel's Blood and Archangel's Kiss are both good, solid urban fantasy stories where the romance doesn't take over too much.
It's to be hoped that she'll continue to develop the Psy-Changeling series into something a little more substantial. Otherwise she'll end up tagged with the supernatural sex label and will go unnoticed for her other abilities.

Caressed by Ice by Nalini Singh is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

anita blake returns in laurel k hamilton's bullet; the original & the best urban fantasy

Finally, another book in my favourite urban fantasy series, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter by Laurell K Hamilton
Bullet is the nineteenth in the series and continues the complicated, twisted story of a girl who started out raising zombies, became the lover of a Master Vampire, then the lover of a werewolf, has numerous strands of were-blood in her veins and now, as the first true necromancer in centuries, has inherited the powers of both the vampires and the were-folk.
When Hamilton began the series in 1993, no one could have predicted its success and longevity. Unfortunately, despite being so much better written, more creative, more adult, darker and sexier, it's tripe like the Twilight series that's become a world phenomenon.
Even the Sookie Stackhouse books of Charlaine Harris have been turned into a TV show and Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles have become movies.
While I'll give Harris and Rice props for their quality work, as a connoisseur of urban fantasy I'm endlessly frustrated that pap like Twilight has invaded the brains of a generation, while Hamilton's work remains, partly, a cult phenomenon.
Still, the good thing about this is that no big studio attempting to make Miley Cyrus interesting has bought up the rights and totally destroyed the best urban fantasy series ever written – so I must be grateful for small mercies.
The Anita Blake series began with Anita working as an Animator – raising zombies for families and lawyers after missing information – and side-lining in Vampire Hunting.
The early books – especially Guilty Pleasures (1993), The Laughing Corpse (1994), Circus of the Damned (1995), The Lunatic Cafe (1996), Bloody Bones (1996), The Killing Dance (1997) and Burnt Offerings (1998) – focused mainly on Anita's work, with the action coming from her various jobs.
Later books, generally starting from Narcissus in Chains (2001) and including the novella Micah (2006), put the focus clearly on Anita's romantic entanglements and particularly her multiple sexual partners as she become overwhelmed by her powers as an incubus. Although Anita is still, mostly, human, her animating powers combined with the various magics of vampires and were-animals have seen her changing into something not quite human.
During this period Hamilton came under some criticism for her over-emphasis on the sexual side of things – sure there was still a fair bit of action and gore, but Anita began to solve her problems via sex rather than pulling out the big guns (literally) and blasting away. Not something that appealed to all of her fans.
But the author must have been listening to her fans, for with Bullet and the previous book Flirt, Hamilton has returned to form. Anita is still dealing with having to choose a 'mate' among the werelions, but at least she's also back at work.
And while the sex is still there, the manipulation of emotions and anger continues, Anita and her brood of vampires and were-animals have to deal with a deadly enemy, one they thought had been destroyed.
The Mother of All Darkness is still around, she's not been completely destroyed, and even Anita's nemesis and Jean-Claude's former Mistress, Belle Morte (Beautiful Death) is scared.
As with all the Anita Blake books, Hamilton's ability to add humanity to the non-human, emotions and petty human foibles to the supernatural and the exasperation of a frustrated woman in a man's world, endears Bullet, and Anita, to the reader.
Anita Blake is a modern, urban fantasy heroine; someone we'd all like to think we'd be if faced with supernatural powers, the roaming dead, preternaturally beautiful men and a nasty, evil bitch who wants to take over our body – we'd strap on the knives and jump feet first, all guns blazing.

Bullet by Laurell K Hamilton is published by Headline, an Hachette company, and is available from good book stores and online.

stephanie laurens' latest regency romp, the brazen bride, continues the black cobra quartet with feisty heroines and heroic officers

Stephanie Laurens returns her fans to the world of the Regency rake and the feisty heroine in her third instalment of The Black Cobra Quartet, The Brazen Bride. 
Yes, the dashing young men in uniform, on secret missions to save the world, whilst simultaneously managing to sweep swooning – but feisty and apparently quite sexually liberated – off their feet, before ending up in a loving, and raunchy, marriage.
Much as the above sentence can be read as Laurens' formula for her best-selling Regency romance novels, and formula it is, it does nothing to explain why these books are so much damn fun to read. 
In The Brazen Bride, readers follow the story of Logan Monteith, one of the four British officers tasked with getting an important document from India to England, while avoiding the dreaded Black Cobra – a blood-thirsty gang of thugs and assassins. Caught by three of them on his ship to England, Logan is wounded but manages to kill his attackers just as his ship goes down with all hands – except him.
Washed ashore, he's rescued and rehabilitated by the lovely Linnet Trevission – lady of a manor who isn't too shy to take what she wants; innuendo intended.
As he recovers, Logan grows to love the estate, its people, and – of course – the fiery Linnet. Cue descriptions of her burnished red hair.
However, as his memory returns, Logan realises that he has to leave his new-found home and make the perilous journey onward to hand over his vital document.
Luckily Linnet won't be dissuaded from helping him out; ensuring their romance continues spiced by discoveries, attacks and declarations of intent.
What makes Laurens' books a cut above the usual run of the mill Regency romance, is that she manages to add some action to her stories. The thread of the Black Cobra attacks and the reason behind the men's journeys allows the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.
The last officer is still on his way, and Laurens' next book The Reckless Bride will tie all the stories together and catch the baddies for good – I can't wait.

The Brazen Bride by Stephanie Laurens is published by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

the world of the downside ghosts returns in stacia kane's unholy magic & city of ghosts

American author Stacia Kane continues her Downside Ghosts series with the second and third in the series, Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts. 
Readers are returned to the post-apocalyptic world of Chess Putnum, a church 'witch', able to see the ghosts that returned to plague the world and bring about the end of life as we know it. 
In Unholy Ghosts, the first book, readers were introduced to a new fantasy world where ghosts and magic are real; the Church of Real Truth runs the country and people try to get by as well as they can.

Read my review of Unholy Ghosts: Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane is fresh urban fantasy with a gritty, sideways feel

As always, however, there's an underside, a “downside” to society, and it's in this fringe world that Chess exists. Oh, and while Chess is nominally the heroine of these tales, she's no squeaky clean princess with powers – Chess is from the wrong side of the tracks, she's a Downsider, and she's a junkie. 
Her drug habit has gotten Chess into trouble before, walking the knife's edge of respectability to keep her Church job, while dealing with her local drug lord on the one hand and sleeping with the opposition, on the other. 
And in the middle is a great, big, ugly enforcer who is smarter than he looks and cares more for Chess than she'd like to admit. 
In Unholy Magic, Chess finds herself working with a VIP who may, or may not, be faking a haunting – a criminal offence with the Church; at the same time someone – or something – is killing prostitutes in Downside and Bump, Chess' dealer, wants her to make sure it's not magically linked. 
On top of this, Chess' feelings for Terrible – Bump's enforcer – are all confused, while her “just having sex, we're not in a relationship” with Lex – Bump's opposition – seems to be getting a little too heavy. 
Then there's the false medium that Chess helped put away – but some thing's not quite right there either – and the City of Ghosts is even more unsettled than it should be, despite the fact that it's almost the anniversary of the Rising – the time when the ghosts returned to the world to wreak their vengeance. 
Kane's world is thoroughly detailed and comprehensive – there are enough resonances with our current world to ensure the readers have something to hold on to; a sign of a quality piece of urban fantasy writing. 
As City of Ghosts opens, Chess is attending the execution of an unlicensed medium involved in the illegal use of magic; she's still recovering from her run in with the ghost whorehouse and bringing Terrible back to life with an ill-considered and possibly illegal rune – and he still won't talk to her. 
Before she's completely recovered from her last nasty experience, another one opens up inside the Church, and once again Chess is thrown into the thick of things. 
Her previous “successes” have made the Church think she's great at her job, so great that they second her to the Black Squad – the Church's secret service – and force her to not only be bound by an unbreakable and painful spell, but even worse, stick her with a partner – the head of the damned Church's daughter no less. 
On top of all this, to add insult to injury, Terrible finally found out about Lex and now he hates Chess, but he's the only person who's going to be able to help her out of the mess she's now involved in. Oh, and the Lamaru – the original anti-Church baddies from the first book – are back. Only this time they've got something even bigger in mind; they want to release the ghost from the Eternal City. 
Kane manages to keep the action pounding along in both Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts, not losing anything to developing the characters. Readers discover more about Terrible, he's not quite as bad as he wants people to think, and Lex turns out to be someone much more important than Chess thought he was. 
Chess' problems with men pale almost into insignificance when held up against her drug addictions; readers also discover just how badly hooked she really is, but are given some more insight into way Chess needs to self-medicate so badly. 
In some ways Chess' addictions balance out her skills in magic, and control them at the same time. And the addictions also help her hold it together, oddly enough. Like many children of foster homes and broken families, at the centre of Chess is a great, gaping hole of loneliness and self-loathing just waiting to implode and drag her down. The drugs allow Chess to ignore that danger, walling it up behind chemically created emotions that are much easier for her to deal with. 
The insight into Chess, her inability to enjoy intimacy, her need to replace caring with sex, also explains her mixed up feelings for Terrible. Kane's skill in blending these sharp observations about drug abuse and emotional trauma with an action-packed thriller and supernatural trappings is what makes these books so readable. 
Chess is the perfect anti-heroine; the antidote to the soppy, love obsessed teens dominating the urban fantasy genre at the moment. There's not a vampire or werewolf in sight – thank god – and the gritty truth of Chess' life adds depth to what could be dismissed as “just another fantasy novel”. 
There are more books in the Downside Ghosts series to come; I can't wait.

Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts by Stacia Kane are published by Harper Voyager and are available from good book stores and online.