Heroic Hearts

Heroic HeartsHeroic Hearts
by Anne Bishop, Charlaine Harris, Chloe Neill, Jim Butcher, Kerrie L. Hughes, Kevin Hearne, Patricia Briggs
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593099186
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Pages: 350
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes—ordinary people who do the right thing—bravely step forward.

In Jim Butcher’s “Little Things,” the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he’ll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.

In Patricia Briggs’s “Dating Terrors,” the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more—if she can escape the dark magic binding her.

In Charlaine Harris’s “The Return of the Mage,” the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they’ve bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.

And in Kelley Armstrong’s “Comfort Zone,” the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can’t refuse a ghost pleading for help.

ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi


This sounds like a romance, but as the cover makes clear it’s an urban fantasy anthology, and the title refers to acts of heroism by characters that would normally be considered bit players or underdogs.

And it’s an excellent collection; with the exception of one (The Vampires Karamazov, which felt like a story fragment, or at least, a story with an incomplete ending), I enjoyed all of them; not something I can often say about anthologies.  Of course this collection’s deck is stacked, if you know what I mean, with authors like Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Anne Bishop, Kevin Hearne, and Chloe Neil, each of them offering short stories that complement or extend their most popular series.

I’m not sure I can come up with a favourite.  As much as I enjoyed all my favourite authors’ entries, when I think back across all of them the two that immediately come to mind as stories that ‘stick’ are Jennifer Brozek’s The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic – perhaps because I might overly identify with Felicia, who only wants to be left alone, and Kerry L. Hughes’ Troll Life which somehow charmed me in ways I can’t quite pinpoint; maybe the sentient trains?

Patricia Briggs’ story features Asil, Dating Terrors, and while it’s always fun to read about Asil – he makes me laugh – and the story is good, I have to admit I think he plays to best advantage when he’s surrounded by Charles, Anna, Bran and the rest of the pack.  For those interested, this short story is not the same one as Asil and the not-date found in the Laurel K. Hamilton anthology Fantastic Hope; it’s related, I suspect, and I’m certain Dating Terrors takes place after Asil and the Not-Date.  It also appears to have long-reaching implications for Asil and his fans; I’m wondering if they’ll play out in the next Alpha and Omega book?

The Good, The Bad, and the Undead (The Hollows, #2)

The Good The Bad And The UndeadThe Good The Bad And The Undead
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780061744518
Series: The Hollows #2
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 464
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

To save herself and her vampire roommate, former bounty hunter Rachel Morgan must confront six feet of sheer supernatural seduction—the vampire master—and dark secrets she’s hidden even from herself.


 

This is a better written book than the first one – a tighter plot, a (slightly) more likeable MC.  But I’m still giving it 3.5 stars because I find the whole situation with Ivy deeply disturbing and the author hasn’t justified it to my satisfaction.  I don’t dislike Ivy, but the dynamic – even with the story-line geared toward engendering sympathy – just feels really exploitative.

Rachel’s personality, while improved, still failed to click with me.  I have to believe, still, that future books are better; there’s an “Extras” at the end of this ebook (from the library) that had two “articles” written by Rachel Morgan about vampires and fairies/pixies, and her voice in these – dry, funny, a little snarky – is what I expect her voice to be in the books, and so far, it’s definitely not.

In both books so far, Rachel is rather strident about the line between white and black magic and her morals appeared to be set in stone, but when the rubber hit the road in this one, she crossed that line in order to achieve a greater good.  But boy, she caved quick; she didn’t waste any time offering and accepting a rather dark deal. View Spoiler »  She has a massive fear of ley line magic, but once she figures out she can do it, she starts playing with it in a scene with the pixies that was great, but didn’t do a lot to establish her creditability or integrity as the heroine.

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy the book; as I said at the start, it’s a much better story.  I just haven’t found my groove with the characters yet, and I’m definitely up for book 3.  I continue to see hints that future books are going to be more my jam.  But I’m glad I can get them at my library; if I’d bought these first two, I’m not sure I’d be willing to go further.

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)

Dead Witch WalkingDead Witch Walking
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
Series: The Hollows #1
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 432
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

Vampires rule the darkness in a predator-eat-predator world rife with dangers beyond imagining—and it's Rachel Morgan's job to keep that world civilized.

A bounty hunter and a witch with serious sex appeal and an attitude, she'll bring 'em back alive, dead . . . or undead.


 

I remember starting to read this years ago, and I wasn’t able to finish it – I was bored before I got much beyond the 3rd chapter.  Speaking to my sister the other day, she mentioned that it had taken her 3 tries to get through the first book, but after that got hooked on the series.  So I figured I’d give it another try, since the ongoing UF series’ I enjoy are getting thin on the ground, and I checked it out from my library.

I got through it this time but as a first book, it’s weaker than most.  Ultimately, it’s enjoyable, but Harrison makes you work for it by introducing an MC that’s supposed to be a badass witch, but is so timid it boggles the mind she survived her job as long as she did.  She goes out on her own and partners with a living-vampire named Ivy and the two spend the book hovering in this weird quasi-sexual-assault dynamic that was chewing on my last nerve before the half-way mark.  Hard to really get on-board with a heroine that acts like she’s about to suffer the vapours for most of the book.  Jenks the pixie, was, as least, a consistent and delightful character and I was charmed by his entire family.

Things did pick up right towards the end, when Rachel finally found some spirit, but honestly I was on the fence about whether or not I’d read book 2 until I read a sneak peak at the end, for a book much further into the series, containing enough mini-spoilers to actually get me seriously interested in continuing the series.  Guess that sneak peak paid for itself in this case.

Paper & Blood (Ink & Sigil, #2)

Paper & BloodPaper & Blood
by Kevin Hearne
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780356515243
Series: Ink & Sigil #2
Publication Date: August 12, 2021
Pages: 336
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Orbit

 

Well, this was fun.  The follow up to the first book, Ink & Sigil, takes place in Melbourne, Australia, my current residence of record.  Specifically, in the Dandenong Ranges, one of my favorite places here, as it’s primarily rain forest.

This is not a mystery in any sense, but more a quest.  Al and Buck arrive in Melbourne to assist the apprentice sigil agent there with finding her master, who felt a disturbance in the wards, went to investigate, and never returned.  On their way to her last known location, they pick up a hitchhiker, Al’s receptionist, who should be in Scotland but isn’t, Gladys-who-has-seen-some-shite, and meet up with Connor, a/k/a Atticus, the Iron Druid.  Once they get to the trail, they pick up a few more adventurers, some old friends and some new.

This is the rag-tag band that goes out to save the missing sigil agents, if they can be saved, and battle the ever stranger beasts, unimagined chimeras, that spring up in their path.  The only unanswered questions are how the entity arrived and why, but those are answered 2/3rds of the way through rather matter-of-factly, so there’s really no buildup of suspense – just a few minor skirmishes, a perilous passage, and finally the epic battle royale and showdown with those responsible.

Quests have never been my jam, so there was an element of unmet expectation for me.  By dint of my reading tastes, I unconsciously kept waiting for a climax or big reveal.  But other than that, which the setting more than made up for, I enjoyed the story.  The characters felt less over-the-top for me this time around and the humor slightly less adolescent-male, though the hobgoblin, Buck, made up for the quantity with some stunning quality here and there.  I could wish that were toned down a bit more.

I happened to read the Acknowledgments that are at the end, first, and noted that Hearne had every intention of visiting Australia to do the research for this book until the Pandemic we all know and love (to hate) reared its ugly head.  He was forced to get the details second hand and I have to say, having been to all the places he’s mentioned, he and his sources, did a bang up job of getting it right.  The only two tiny details I caught, and only because they vexed me when I arrived here 14 years ago, was in the scene at the Healesville Hotel.  The first is that, unless things have changed, there is no table service at the bar.  The vast majority of casual dining/drinking establishments here don’t have table service.  You order at the counter and then pay at the counter before you leave.  The second is that Ya-ping ordered an iced tea.  I’d kill to be able to order iced tea here – the flavoured stuff is becoming popular here now in a niche way, but they still think iced black tea is a sacrilege.  Both of these things are entirely inconsequential, and I mention them only for the opportunity to vent about them.

I suspect I’m not strictly the target demographic for this series, but I enjoy it anyway and I’m looking forward to the third book, where, hopefully, Gladys-who-has-seen-some-shite will once again play a role.  I like her.

I read this for Halloween Bingo and it is the perfect book for In the Dark, Dark Woods as you can see in the above pictures I took in the Dandenong Ranges. It would also work for Cryptozoologist, as the story is littered with chimeras that include a dragon-turtle-spider and a cassowary-cobra to name but two.

Bayou Moon (The Edge, #2)

Bayou MoonBayou Moon
by Ilona Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780441019458
Series: Novel of the Edge #2
Publication Date: September 28, 2010
Pages: 480
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

 

I’d been told ages ago that The Edge series got better as it went along.  And this second entry was certainly different from the first.

We start off with just one of the characters that played a part in On the Edge, the werewolf, William.  He’s approached by the Weird’s version of the CIA to retrieve something from another clan in another part of the Edge, in the Louisiana territory, where shifters are killed on principle.

Cerise’s family is old and used to part of the aristocracy of the Weird, but was banished generations ago.  They live in a constant state of feud with another old family, and her parents have been kidnapped in the feud’s latest volley.  But there’s another hand running this latest skirmish and it’s after the knowledge Cerise’s grandparents took with them to their graves.  Or maybe not.

This book has a much more sci-fi feel than any of Andrews’ other books save for the Innkeeper series, which came along later.  It’s not science fiction in the strict sense, because what’s done by the antagonist of the story is done entirely with magic, but the scientific processes are applied to these magical ‘experiments’.  The results are cryptozoological creatures that are a horrifying mix of plant, animal and human.  I’m not, generally, a fan of this kind of thing, and it was the part of the book I liked the least.

The characters overcame this though.  There was just something about Cerise’s huge family that was endearing; all of them vastly different from each other and as a whole a lot of fun to read about.

The final battle was … unsatisfactory.  The thing they overlooked seemed too big a thing to overlook, especially for William who fought this antagonist twice before. And the ending was too fairy tale for my tastes, coming within sight of being twee.

It’s sort of a weird book for me, because I was enjoying it as I read it, but after finishing remembered as many of the bits that I didn’t like as I did the bits I did.  But overall, a good read.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021 and it definitely fits the Cryptozoology square, with its characters that are human/plant/animal hybrids.  It would also work for Mad Scientists and Evil Geniuses, as well as Terror in a Dark Town, and Shifter.

On the Edge (Novel of the Edge, #1)

On the EdgeOn the Edge
by Ilona Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780441017805
Series: Novel of the Edge #1
Publication Date: September 29, 2009
Pages: 336
Genre: Fiction, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

 

Well, it just goes to show you: people change and you should never say never.  I read this book back in 2016 and my review from that reading was … unfavourable, ending with my declaration that I’d never read the book again.

Shows you what I know.  I not only read it again, I liked it better than I did the first time.  It’s still a little too PNR for me, but I found it easier to get into the story, the setting and the characters.  Maybe because I’d already read it and had a vague recollection of not liking the romantic interest, I found him less unbearable than I expected to, and the non-consent issues didn’t feel as egregious this time around, only typically arrogant.

I can’t really say why, except maybe I’ve read more Ilona Andrews’ since, or my mood was more receptive to the story.  Who knows?  But I went from rating this 3 stars and never reading it again, to rating it 4 stars and buying a copy of it for my shelves.  Along with the other 3 book in the series.

 

I’ve been intending to read this since I ordered it back in July, but its arrival during Halloween Bingo was fortuitous;  it’s a great fit for the Relics and Curiosities square.  The story line centers on a powerful artefact from a previous civilisation that eats magic and spits out something very akin to a demon hound.

Charmed & Ready

Charmed & ReadyCharmed & Ready
by Candace Havens
Rating: ★★
isbn: 9780425222492
Publication Date: May 8, 2008
Pages: 292
Publisher: Berkley

 

So much worse than the one before it (Charmed and Dangerous).  The romance between Bronwyn and Sam is adolescent, and Bronwyn’s “professionalism” isn’t any better.  For a woman tasked with security detail, there’s a lot of drinking and dancing, witch or not.

Truly bad.

Scourged (Iron Druid Chronicles, #10)

ScourgedScourged
by Kevin Hearne
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780525486459
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #9
Publication Date: April 15, 2018
Pages: 268
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Books

 

I bought a signed copy of this book around the time it came out, before I heard that the general conclusion of other readers’ was disappointment.  It sat on my TBR shelf neglected ever since.  But recently I read a review for the second book in his new series, which is winging its way to me as I write this and in that review it’s mentioned that Atticus and Oberon play a part and they get the ending they deserve.

Well, in order to appreciate the ending they deserve, I needed to know about the ending they got, so, being in a very bad mood yesterday anyway, I grabbed this book and thought “let’s get this over with”.

And it turned out, I guess because I was braced for the worst, that I didn’t think it was so bad after all.  Yes, if you agree with the premise that not all promises are meant to be kept, Atticus’ ending was pretty dire in consequence of keeping that ill-fated promise.  And no, I didn’t really enjoy all the self-flagellation Atticus had going on, nor did I think Granuaile’s reaction at the end entirely proportional.  But over everything else was kind of fun.  I enjoyed seeing all the pantheons show up, and I liked the humour and the ever-so-subtle oneupmanship between them.  And as much as I love Oberon, I wasn’t unhappy with his smaller role in this book.  There’s a fine line, I think, between Oberon being adorable and funny, and Oberon being insanely obnoxious, and this book found that line before it crossed it.

I’m not sorry to see the series come to a conclusion, though I’ll miss the characters.  I am glad I read it too, because I’m really looking forward to what I can only guess is Atticus’ redemption in the new series, Blood and Ink.

 

I read this book not really thinking how it would fit on my Halloween Bingo 2021 card.  And it really doesn’t, although it would work for Gallows Humour.  But I have a Wild Card I can use, and a square I don’t like, Plague and Diseases so I’m going to use Kevin Hearne and this book to take care of that space.

Naked Brunch

Naked BrunchNaked Brunch
by Sparkle Hayter
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781842430422
Publication Date: May 1, 2002
Pages: 288
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: No Exit Press

Annie Engel hasn’t been feeling herself lately. With good reason. A mousy secretary by day, she’s been morphing into a werewolf at night. In the morning, she’s not quite sure what she’s been up to, but she knows she’d like to do it again. She soon discovers that her odd dreams and strange hangovers are actually the remnants of a night out on the prowl.

But Annie’s predatory activities have not gone unnoticed, and soon she is being pursued by one hapless reporter, a psychiatrist who wants to save her from her beastly impulses, and another (guy) werewolf who captures her heart. Who is a nice werewolf to trust? Get ready for a manic, madcap chase through the dank underbelly of the big city, a place where no one seems to sleep and the scents of fear and desire are always in the air.


 

Years ago, I read Sparkle Hayter’s mystery series featuring Robin Hudson, and enjoyed it tremendously.  Years pass and I’m digging through a local used bookstore and stumbled across this completely different style of book, but the author’s name is not one that’s easily forgotten, so I grabbed it.  It sounded funny.

I finally got around to reading it this year and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be, and in fact, better, since I was wary over the different narrative style and genre.  It’s also told in the third person, which can be tricky for me.

The story revolves primarily around Annie, the last nice girl in the big city (which, while never named explicitly, is NYC).  She’s a secretary during the day and normally a door-mat for her two ‘best friends’ at night, being dragged from vapid party to vapid party while her two friends kill themselves to become famous.  But lately, she’s been having weird dreams, and waking up in the morning covered in blood, to find broken bedroom windows, and the need to vomit up whatever she ate the night before, which seems to be meat, which is odd, as she’s a vegetarian.

Then there’s Jim – he’s a werewolf and he’s come back to the city after a self-imposed exile, the kind of exile where everybody thinks you’re dead.  He runs into Annie one night when she’s not herself and they hit if off in a love-at-first-sight kind of way – if only he knew who she was or what she looked like in her less hirsute form…

Dr. Marco knows there’s a werewolf running around uncontrolled in the city and is frantic to find it, bring it into the center, and reform it using a tried and true method of drugs, restraints, and group therapy.  If he can’t find it, his family will and they’ll put it down rather than risk exposure.

And then there’s Sam, the hapless, truly kind, incredibly lucky, has-been reporter, desperate to hold on to his wife and his career.  He hears about the ‘vicious dog attacks’ that are leaving dead bodies all over the city and turns it into the career comeback he’d been hoping for, while the rest of the station’s crew, against their better judgement, turn themselves inside out to help him.  Because he’s just no nice.

Annie has to choose between the chance at a normal life by submitting to Dr. Marco’s rehabilitation center, or being on the run, in love, and having hot animal (literally) sex.  It’s a hard choice – especially amidst a city wide armed hunt for the mad-dog killers leaving dead bodies all over the place.

There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not even going to touch on all the ‘secondary’ characters from whom the reader occasionally hears from.  The narrative starts off a little slowly, as it takes awhile to figure out who all the players are and what’s going on.  But once everybody’s found their place, the story is fun, and a very different kind of morality tale.  I love that the good guys get good stuff and the bad guys get … eaten.  Or at least, what they deserve.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and I’ll likely read it again.  I won’t call it speculative fiction, but it’s very different from the garden variety werewolf stories I’ve read before, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a different take on a common theme, done with a cynical sort of humor.

I read this for Halloween Bingo, and it easily qualifies for at least three squares: Shifters, Mad Scientists and Evil Geniuses, and Gallows Humor, which allows me to invoke my first Spell Pack card: the all-new Double Trouble.  I’m choosing to use it for the first two squares: Shifters and Mad Scientists and Evil Geniuses.

   

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)

Dead Until DarkDead Until Dark
by Charlaine Harris
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 2008-01-02
Series: Sookie Stackhouse #1
Publication Date: January 2, 2008
Pages: 312
Genre: Urban Fantasy

I read this for the first time in 2008, when it came out, but find I don’t have any notes or reviews of it; obviously I was only lurking and shelving on GR back in 2008.  I remember really liking it back then, and I’ve read all but the 13th and final novel since.

However, upon a second read many years later, I find the writing doesn’t hold up.  Sookie is naive and a bit simple (not simple-minded), as she is supposed to be, but the writing too feels naive and simple, which left me impatient.

It’s possible later books are better written, but so far I have not the urge to find out.