Book Review: Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw

Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw

For centuries, the Ministry of Occultism has worked in the shadows, keeping the world safe from otherworldly elder gods, “tainted” magic users, and monsters of all kinds. All this gets upended when a group of gelatinous refugees from another dimension garner a storm of media attention. Suddenly the Ministry of Occultism is thrown into the worst sort of attention. As awareness of shoggoths, er, fluidics suffuses the world consciousness, the Ministry finds itself on the wrong side of the political correctness debate. When a serial killer starts targeting fluidics, the agency’s top (read:only) field agents mget act quickly to save lives and prevent a PR Armageddon.

Croshaw is an author known for his irreverent, biting humor. His wit is on display here as he tackles the subject of political correctness in a bizarre, yet strangely relatable context. Before I get further, I am going to come down firmly on the side of political correctness. It takes little effort to take other people’s feelings and cultural history into consideration, and adjust your behavior accordingly. There’s nothing noble in adhering to the old days or old eays if that is just an excuse to be an uncaring asshat.

Now, as with any progressive movement, there is always pushback from people who feel uncomfortable with change, and who would rather not have to accept things they find disagreeable. Now, the line between acceptable and unacceptable in society is based on a lot of factors… not to long ago, being gay was officially considered a mental illness and criminal. The question recidivists often ask is where will acceptance end? When does it stop being acceptance of cultural or sexual differences and start becoming enabling of harmful behavior? The primary example pulled out for this is female genital mutilation, many cultures consider it a vital part of a girl’s development into a woman, but it has been recognized by many as harmful and cruel. What view takes precedence?

Croshaw heads into this thorny problem head on, and with his typical humorous twist. He, like South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, chooses to highlight he ridiculousness of both positions, leaving the reader bouncing against different levels of right and wrong: how can anyone hate the fluidics? They seem so polite and helpful? Do demons really require equal rights? Etc. Some people deride this as riding the median, but I think that exposing the flaws in both viewpoints forces people to examine their own thoughts and feelings.

Wow. That review got a lot more serious than I intended. Let me sum up by saying that this is an intelligent and entertaining story of monsters, bureaucracy, and modern life. It will make you laugh out loud and think deep(ish) thoughts. In a world were (justifiably) the subject of political correctness is an unchanging wall of seriousness and resentment, it is refreshing to look at the lighter side.

The book is currently available as an Audible original, meaning it is an audio book read by Croshaw himself. This is a role he is well suited for, after his years fronting the animated videogame review blog, Zero Punctuation. Fans of Yahtzee Crowshaw’s previous books, or fans of Christopher Moore and/or A. Lee Martinez are sure to enjoy this book.

Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

At birth, every child in the empire is branded with a rune, which determines the path their life will take. The chosen follow their assigned path and thrive in their life’s calling. Then there are the unchosen, those who, at birth, are not favored by the gods. These are the equivalent of an untouchable caste, occupying the lowest rungs of society. They have no prospects, and no hope to improve their lot in life. Brock is one of these unfortunates, but he is determined to be more than his birthright dictates. Obtaining a counterfeit rune, he sets off to become one of the Empire’s ruling class. At the academy, he uncovers a lost form of magic, and secrets that could bring the Empire itself to its knees.

This book has a lot of potential. As a debut offering, there are fantastic bones to this story. The magic and caste systems are original and nicely developed, the protagonist is interesting and sympathetic, and the world is fleshed out and full of wonder and danger. The writing and pacing are a bit rough, but the underlying talent is there. With a book or two more of experience under his belt, Kohanek could make quite a name for himself in the fantasy genre.

The book is certainly designed to appeal more to young adult audiences, but older readers enthusiastic about fantasy will probably enjoy themselves as well.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove


The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

At some unknown point in time, The Great Disruption fractured the world, sending different areas into different time periods. In the hundred years since, explorers have traveled the globe, trying to map the new world and make sense of this new reality. This story brings us to the New Occident, which roughly corresponds (geographically) to the original thirteen American colonies, in 1891. The government is run in a parliamentary system, where the right to speak can be purchased by the second. Our protagonist, Sophia Tims, comes from a long, distinguished line of explorers and mapmakers. Her uncle, Shadrack, is the preeminent cartologer in the world. When he is kidnapped, Sophia finds herself torn from her comfortable life in Boston as she sets off to rescue her uncle, travelling across countries and across times. But her uncle’s kidnappers are after something legendary, a map that can change the face–and fate–of the world.

This was, simply put, a fantastic YA adventure. It’s one of those stories at crosses age boundaries and can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Sophia is a great character, one who is able to grow and evolve as her world changes around her. Grove also provides us with a number of wonderful supporting characters and villains to flesh out the story. 

Importantly, the world these characters inhabit feels fully formed. The concept of different continents existing in different times is very fun, and Grove makes it work, to ing us insight into the relations between times, their politics, and their religions. 

The Glass Sentence is an adventure story along the lines of The Golden Compass. Anyone looking for a new YA series to try should add this book to their TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr


The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr

Demons are everywhere. But only Luca can see them. Having barely survived a torturous exorcism, he has since learned to keep his mouth shut about the creatures he sees lurking at the corners of his vision. When his father joins Pope Urban II on his crusade to take Jerusalem back, Luca defies his father to seek the church’s promise of divine forgiveness for crusaders. Once the journey begins, however, it becomes clear that the nature of Luca’s demons are not as simple as he previously thought. Coming into possession of a mysterious book of prophecy, and surrounded on all sides by devious relations, sinister clergymen, and terrifyingly powerful demons, Luca must avert disaster. 

This is a medieval crusader story by way of Game of Thrones. Your flawed protagonists find themselves set against devious and powerful opponents, the conflict more or less direct depending on the relative position of the baddie. Luca and Suzan, our teenaged protagonists, are nicely fleshed out and well written. The concept of the demons used in the book is original and interesting as well, and there is a definite sense of menace that pervades the book.

But for all that, the book just couldn’t keep my interest. A lot happens in this book, and a story set against a major crusade has plenty of exciting things going on, but there just wasn’t much sense of excitement for me reading the book. Despite the sense of dread I mentioned earlier (a feeling like waiting for the other shoe to drop), I simply didn’t feel any suspense or tension as the plot moved along.

So in sum, the historical details are great, the protagonists well written (though every other character is pared down to two dimensional sins), and the demonic aspects are interesting. But the book just never took off for me.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

rivers of london.jpg

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the first book in the Peter Grant series. I was recommended this series by a friend of mine, who knew I’d been meaning to start The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Note to self: book shopping after talking with friends during a long night at the bar can be dangerous.

Peter Grant is a fresh new constable with the London Metropolitan Police. He seems to be your average constable destined for average desk work until one night, while guarding a crime scene, he has a chat with a ghost. This odd ability brings him to the attention of one Chief Inspector Nightingale, and Grant suddenly finds himself swept into a world where magic is real and very, very dangerous.

I really enjoyed this book. I still haven’t read The Dresden Files (my bookworm friends will understand the unstable sand that is a TBR list), but from what I know of the series, this is built in the same vein. As always, first books always have the awkward getting-to-know-you-and-the-worldscape stage, but Aaronovitch manages to get through that with a minimum of sacrifice for pacing. There is a good amount of action, and quite a few scenes that were genuinely creepy. Add that to the fact that the book is so firmly set in London that you can follow the action on Google Earth (I absolutely did this), and this is vastly entertaining, incredibly realistic fantasy read.

Fans of Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, and other urban fantasy series should absolutely check this out. The best part is, since I’m coming onto this series late, I can binge!

 

Book Review: A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

Spoiler Alert: This is the second book in the Kingdom of Fire Series (you can read my review of the first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning, here). There are definitely going to be spoilers for the first book in this review. 

___________________________________________________

So after defeating Korozoth, The Shadow and Fog, Henrietta Howell finds herself more or less (increasingly less) accepted by the sorcerer community. The ward that protected London is gone, Rook is slowly turning into a monster, she’s still of magician stock, she’s not the chosen one, the remaining Ancient Ones continue to devastate the country, and oh yeah, R’hlem the Skinned Man is demanding she be turned over to him. And engraving that demand in the flesh and bones of her countrymen. So, things are not exactly going smoothly.

When Henrietta’s research uncovers a possible way to defeat the Ancient Ones, her fellow sorcerers are hesitant to jump, as it seems magician magic is needed to defeat the monsters. Henrietta must risk herself, her friends, and her country to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Ones and stop their reign of terror.

I really enjoyed the first book on this series. Cluess’ intelligent use of sexism and classism to construct her magical world was cannily done. Her use of lovecraftian imagery against a Jane Eyre background was excellent, and provided some truly creepy imagery.

Poison does neglect the sharp societal insight of the first book, and the shadow-haunted visuals of the previous story are toned down a bit here. The first was atmospheric and gothic, this book lends itself more to adventure. Less a Jane Eyre and more a Jane Austen.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the book. Cluess keeps the plot running at a frenetic pace (I finished the book in a single day). She also has provided her main characters room to grow and mature. Henrietta herself is a fantastic heroine, flawed and idealistic, traumatized and striving. It is easy for characters like this to become so involved in navel gazing that the reader loses interest, but Cluess manages to keep Henrietta in our hearts.

The requisite love triangle is still there (grumble, grumble, grumble), but the dynamics change throughout the book. In the interest of maintaining a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that no one comes out smelling like a rose.

So, if you enjoyed the first book, you’re likely going to enjoy this one as well. Anyone seeking an intelligent YA fantasy series should certainly add this one to their TBR list (but definitely start with the first one).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas


These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

Evelyn is bored. Bored with dresses and balls, bored with her mother’s constant matchmaking schemes, bored with the petty gentlemen she is forced to be pleasant to.

And so begins just about every Victorian-era book, no matter the genre. This one does branch out a bit more: Evelyn’s sister Rose disappears, and her trail follows a mysterious (and huge) Frenchman into London. With her parents concerned more for their reputation than Rose’s safety, Evelyn runs off to find Rose herself. Enlisting the help of dashing Mr. Kent, Evelyn is also forced to work with the infuriating Mr. Braddock, who has a game changing revelation for her: she and her sister may have special powers.

I’m not one of those people who automatically dismiss YA books as beneath my notice. There’s some fantastic work out there and some great stories being told. However, this is one of those genres where it is all too easy to fall into a formulaic trap. Like many recent psychological thrillers have been diminished by trying too hard to be the next Gone Girl, a lot of YA (especially the fantasy genre, which tends to be one of my favorites) suffers by trying to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young, headstrong girl is dissatisfied with her life, but unsure what she wants to do to improve it. After a calamitous event, she is forced to engage a wider, crueler world at its own level, discovering herself in the process. Oh, and you naturally need two potential romantic interests for her, one is “safe,” and has been around forever, the other someone she will never ever like, someone just so infuriating. . .

It sometimes seems like the same song set to different music. That’s not to say that books that follow the formula are all bad, but you need great characters, strong writing, and something special to set your story apart. Unfortunately, These Vicious Masks falls a bit short. Evelyn is intelligent and willing to defy convention if she can help others, but never becomes a truly sympathetic character. The love triangle is of the dimensions expected from the genre, and doesn’t deviate from the pattern.

Still, YA fantasy enthusiasts may want to give the book a go. I’ve always said that I am picky about the genre.

An audio book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In 1977, the four teenaged members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club–Leader Pete, brainy Kerry, tough Andy (call her Andrea and die), and Nate–and their dog, solved their last case. The sightings of lake monsters and rumors of hauntings around an old house set in the middle of a deep lake turned out to be nothing more than a man in a mask.  But 13 years later, the four amateur detectives are shadows of what they once were, underachieving, mentally unstable, hair trigger violent, and (in one case) dead. Long suspecting that something about their last case was not what it seemed, the surviving members of the group (and new dog, Tim) head back to the scene of the hauntings to discover the source of their nightmares. Set against an enemy who is no man in a mask, the damaged Blyton Summer Detective Club faces down ancient monsters and an imminent apocalypse. 

 Meddling Kids starts off facing the camera with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and remains in that pose for the entirety of this story. This is a geeky book, full of references both subtle and overt to many disparate aspects of cult horror (“fuck Salem”, indeed). 

The book is touted as a mashup of Scooby Doo and H.P. Lovecraft, and largely lives up to the blurb. The four main characters are recognizable as rearranged bits and pieces from the Scooby Doo set, and the elder God and unnamable horror aspects take liberally from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With a plot like that, you have a good idea where things are going before you start the book. However, Cantero manages not to make Meddling Kids feel tired, including enough surprises and humor to make the read enjoyable. 

This is a book created for fans of cult horror.  If you’re looking for something that lovingly messes with your favorite genre, add this book to your to read list!

Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso


The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Amalia Cornaro is heir to a great family name, wealth, and untold political influence within the Raverran Empire. However, she has been content to leave most of the political machinations to her brilliant and ruthless mother, and concentrate on her studies of arcane magic. However, when a powerful fire warlock threatens the city of Raverra, Amalia finds herself drafted into containing the warlock’s magic, and in so doing inadvertently becomes a “Falconer”, tethered to the fire warlock and responsible for controlling her powers. Thrown into the middle of a political firestorm (couldn’t help myself), Amalia must use everything her mother ever taught her to prevent a civil war within the empire she loves.

This was an enormously fun fantasy novel, and is the first in the new series. Surprisingly, this is also Melissa Caruso’s debut novel. The story, while ostensibly YA, manages to avoid the pitfalls so common in the genre, and delivers an entertaining and suspenseful read. Caruso has built up an interesting and complex world, and her characters are lovingly crafted and more complex than one usually sees in the Young Adult genre. The book reminded me very much of Dragon Age, the Bioware RPG game (which from me is a huge compliment). I especially enjoyed the way magic is dealt with in Caruso’s world, and the push and pull between Amalia, and her “Falcon”, Zaira.

Fans of YA or the fantasy genre looking for a bright new talent should definitely pick up this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.