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Day Shift (Midnight, Texas, #2)Day Shift by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Not sure whether this should be a full 4 stars or 3.5, but I enjoyed the second Midnight, Texas novel a bit more than I did the first. I suspect part of my appreciation might be due to my disillusionment with the TV series, which I doggedly watched all of but was relieved to see gone.

Day Shift is a strange but pretty effective combination of urban fantasy (well, very small-town fantasy) & cozy mystery. The actual mystery (no spoilers) is familiar enough, involving inheritance & murder. The fun comes in watching Midnight's mostly supernatural residents trying to help out one of their own, solving the case in the process.

It's more obvious in this novel than in the first that Midnight is in the same "universe" as Bon Temps, LA (Sookie fans rejoice), though I'm not sure I caught all the references. At some points, I felt as though character background was becoming more important than the case, but was willing to forgive. The writing seemed wittier than in the first novel, too.

Recommended for urban fantasy fans who prefer more focus on mystery, though I'd advise starting with Midnight Crossing. This is definitely a series, with references to the first book in this one.









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The Black Company (The Chronicle of the Black Company, #1)The Black Company by Glen Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I liked this one a lot more than I thought I was going to. Started reading it because I understood it to be a "classic" of its kind (the beginning of grimdark), and because I was curious. Kept reading it because I simply could not stop, & because I came to care very much about the characters. I will definitely be reading more in this series, as time allows.

This is the trench view of epic fantasy, as narrated by the combat physician Croaker. The reader's appreciation of Croaker is key to this novel . . if you don't like him, or his voice, or his very conflicted view of the mercenary trade, you aren't going to enjoy this read. And I don't blame you, though I did find myself liking him. He's an oddly moral individual trying to do his best for his brothers in the Black Company, though he's not lying to himself or the reader about what some of these brothers are like. When horrible things happen (which they do, but not in graphic detail), he is not accepting. He takes action when he can, avoids when he can do nothing more, but never sees evil as anything other than what it is.

The Black Company doesn't offer elegant prose, or a particularly complex plot. However, unlike my experiences with some modern grimdark (first 1 1/2 Game of Thrones novels in particular, after which I gave up), I found myself able to keep reading and caring about the world Croaker was chronicling. Recommended for folks who enjoy the grand old Weird Tales style of fantasy, without too many bells & whistles, or really gratuitous nastiness.





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The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The Audible version is read by the author, which really enhanced the experience for me. Gaiman's voice gives this dark, engaging modern fantasy a real touch of fairy tale -- something being told to a child, by the child we all were at one point.

Most of the plot points in this short novel would qualify as spoilers, but suffice it to say that Gaiman has captured the otherworldly feelings of an imaginative child, confronted by evil both of this world and utterly not of it. Charming without being cute or cloying, and genuinely touched by the shadows as all good fairy tales are. The writing isn't elaborately elegant, but it does the job of conveying the viewpoint of a bookish, sensitive narrator recalling a long-ago childhood.

Recommended for anyone interested in modern (not epic) fantasy, and willing to be dumped into the deep end of the tale right off.







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The Prisoner of Limnos (Penric and Desdemona, #6)The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Any new Penric and Desdemona adventure is worth celebrating (and for many of us, worth acquiring). How much a reader will celebrate this one depends on whether her/his tastes run to romance or magic systems. I personally craved a little more chaos demon and "uphill magic" in action, though I found this novella's resolution satisfying.

I won't attempt to summarize the fairly straightforward rescue plot. Most of the real pleasure here lies in the working out of Pen and Nikys' relationship (though, thank all the Five Gods, it isn't completely worked out -- which means another novella), with a heavy side order of this world's religious system.

As might be expected from the title, there are some nasty threats -- including some court intrigue I did want to see worked out better -- but no serious grimdark elements. Bujold does a fine job of implying rather than detailing the sometimes violent nature of her world, which I for one appreciate.




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CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is an utterly lovely -- though brutal at points & heartbreaking at other points -- book, possibly the loveliest I've read since my last Guy Gavriel Kay excursion.

Key points of The Odyssey are retold (possibly reclaimed) by a very NOT-minor minor goddess, in first person and with complete honesty. Speaking from a mythology from an ancient culture that did not value women highly, the witch/sorceress Circe turns the tables on narrative expectations and brings not only herself, but many other "minor" female characters (and monsters!) into the spotlight.

There is a definite revisionist flavor to this one, but the politics never get in the way. Highly recommended for lovers of mythology, prose poetry, and/or writers like Mary Renault.

The Audible version is narrated by Perdita Weeks, who sounds exactly as one would expect a Perdita Weeks to sound. YMMV, but I was very glad I spent a credit to enhance my experience.




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Penric's Fox (Penric and Desdemona, #5)Penric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This direct sequel to Penric and the Shaman offers a straight-up murder investigation as filtered through both sorcerous & shamanic magics. There's a good bit of well-written action, and readers learn exactly what a chaos demon can do to an enemy when its sorcerer's life is on the line.

For those interested in Bujold's very logical working-through of magic / religion in her Five Gods "universe," this contains quite a bit of new information. For those who enjoy Penric's increasingly complicated relationship with his demon Desdemona, maybe not so much. However, readers should keep in mind that this novella comes BEFORE the Penric's Mission story arc, so the limited interaction may make sense.

Any new Penric novella is good news for Bujold fans, and this one is no exception. To me, however, it seemed a bit simpler and shorter than most of the previous offerings.

This series remains a "must buy" for me.



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Children of Earth and SkyChildren of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I've actually been reading this one from my own hardcover and the library's borrowed Kindle edition. Given the size of this book, it only made sense to be able to carry it more easily and finally be able to read it more often in more places.

In either format, this is a gorgeous, if slow-paced (mostly) read. Set in a slightly alternate version of Renaissance Europe and ornamented with light touches of the fantastic, it follows several characters through one momentous spring of warfare, politics, and conspiracy. Intriguingly, these characters are on different sides of the conflicts -- and Kay manages to make us care about them all.

The overall message seems to be that war happens to people, not to faceless groups of them. Despite the historical/fantastic setting, this has a distinctly contemporary ring to it due to the religious conflict at its center.

I took my time getting through this, but Kay's prose isn't something to wolf down. It's meant to be savored, and thought about, and rolled around in the mind. Highly recommended for both historical readers willing to expand their horizons a bit, and fantasy readers open to a more subtle approach to the uncanny. There is also a short but highly informative acknowledgments section at the end, for those who are curious about which bits of history had their serial numbers filed off.





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Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An absolutely beautiful rendition of these myths, with a distinctive "voice" that somehow manages to be both plain and deeply poetic. I went through this one slowly, because many of the stories read more like prose poems, & seemed far too musical to just breeze through.

Gaiman manages to call up the true dark / hopeful spirit of these myths, drawing a clear distinction between the more familiar Greek or Roman stories and the grim Northern ones with their certainty that even the gods are doomed.

This book includes an extensive & very helpful glossary of names & places, though I found a few missing when I went to look them up from the stories. All in all, a must read (and probably must buy) for mythology enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys ancient tales told well.



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Mira's Last Dance (Penric and Desdemona, #4)Mira's Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a slightly iffy five stars, because it's actually the second half of a plot begun in Penric's Mission . .. but five stars none the less, if you're a Bujold fan.

The best of this, for me, was the continuing exploration of Learned Penric's relationship to his very complicated "demon" Desdemona. She is actually several separate personalities, and one of them (Mira, a noted courtesan dead for over a century) turns out to have exactly the skills needed to resolve the situation Penric & Co. found themselves in at the end of the last novella.

Pen being male doesn't slow Mira down a bit, though it does add to the lighter feel of this entry in the series. It also adds a bit to Bujold's examination of what it means to be male or female, and the importance of recognizing / honoring the gray areas.

If you're new to this series, be sure to start with Penric's Demon. These novellas are very serialized -- and besides, why miss out on more of a good thing?







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I don't usually post about crowdfunding projects, but I've recently backed one (also rare for me!) that I'm pretty excited about.

Tony C. Smith of the District of Wonders podcasts is doing a Kickstarter for a new SF/F anthology.  It's entitled Everyone: Worlds Without Walls.  Its stated goal is to:

explore and celebrate how we are greater together – and, conversely, the need to tear down walls of ignorance, prejudice, and injustice.

The TOC for this one is international, diverse, & impressive -- and will expand as stretch goals are met.   Dr. Amy H. Sturgis[livejournal.com profile] eldritchhobbit will be writing the introduction. At this point, there are 21 writers involved!

With 10 days to go,  the project's original goal and one stretch goal have been met.  Pledge levels range from the extremely reasonable -- which gets you a e-copy of the anthology -- to more generous amounts for additional rewards.

All details, including that expanding TOC, can be found here.

(Full disclosure: I am backing this, but I am not one of the writers or otherwise involved with the project.)
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Penric’s Mission (World of the Five Gods, #3.7)Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This third entry in Bujold's Penric & Desdemona series (long may it prosper!) has a distinctively darker tone than the two previous novellas, though it never veers into grimdark territory.

When the young Temple sorcerer and his much more experienced demon find themselves betrayed during a diplomatic mission, they must use all their skills to escape from almost certain death. The action and interpersonal intrigue never stop after that. Bujold delivers a coherent magical system, well-crafted fight scenes, and even a touch of honest romance in this one, and any fan of her World of the Five Gods will find this a must read.

Those new to these novellas should definitely start with Penric's Demon, since the plot is quite serialized. A fourth adventure -- Mira's Last Dance -- should be available soon, and I'll be preordering that for my Kindle at the earliest opportunity.




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Penric and the Shaman (World of the Five Gods, #1.6)Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Another delightful return to Bujold's World of the Five Gods, though with a somewhat confusing look into how shamanism works in that culture. (I've been told that reading The Hallowed Hunt first might help. I have somehow missed this one, & definitely intend to do that!)

This is very clearly the second in a series, so reading Penric's Demon first will let the reader get the most out of another right-sized fantasy adventure featuring a very young "full-braid divine" and his much more experienced demon. I'm already looking forward to reading the third of this series, now waiting on my Kindle.



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The Deed of Paksenarrion (The Deed of Paksenarrion, #1-3)The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


An old-school, character-focused high / epic fantasy -- originally a trilogy (Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, (Divided Allegiance, and (Oath of Gold), now published in one volume. The trilogy originally came out in the late 1980s, which is when I think I may have encountered it. I recently reread it, over several months, as “comfort reading.”

And I’m glad that I did.

Many of the plot devices – and certainly the standard Northern European fantasy trappings – are a little dated now. Though gritty enough, the storyline would probably be considered YA. However – and it’s a big However – the notion of a Hero’s Journey for a heroine still resonates, and there are still far too few of them in modern fantasy.

Elizabeth Moon’s prose is tight and clear, her characters are fully worked out, and her knowledge of military subjects comes from actual experience. This is a well-crafted page-turner suitable for fantasy readers of any age, though younger female readers might appreciate it a bit more.




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Penric's Demon (World of the Five Gods, #3.5)Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Set within the Chalion / Five Gods portion of Bujold’s works, this novella is a must-read for her fans (I’m one of them) – and recommended for other fantasy enthusiasts who enjoy world-building and complex characterization without massive doses of graphic violence. Though there’s plenty of action & convincing darkness, the narrative would work for both YA and adult readers.

As always with Bujold, relationships take precedence here. When a young lord whose family has seen better days accidently becomes the newest host of a “demon” (a supernatural being linked to religious magic), he reacts by trying to make friends with the entity. This unusual choice – demons are generally treated as unwilling servants of the sorcerers they inhabit -- drives the rest of the narrative at a brisk pace. Readers of Bujold’s Chalion novels will discover small but tasty additions to that lore. Readers new to the series are unlikely to find themselves lost, but may not appreciate this adventure quite as much.

This novella is a fine example of a fantasy written to its proper length, and no further. I was fully satisfied with the tale when it ended, though (of course!) I wished there were a few more waiting in the wings.




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The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Although this short but incredibly concentrated collection is apparently a modern classic, I’d never run into it until now. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the more elegant bits of darkness I’ve read in some time.

In these ten tales, Angela Carter doesn’t so much retell various fairy tales & legends as rip them apart and rebuild them entirely. Her style is elaborate, poetic, and measured. Her viewpoint is unabashedly feminist, yet critical to the point of cynicism. Her obsessions – and she seems to have had quite a few – are worked out over & over again, reflections in a series of precisely warped mirrors.

Whether this approach works or not depends upon the individual reader. It certainly worked for me – once I slowed down enough to absorb these stories as the near prose-poems they are. My personal favorites were “The Bloody Chamber,” “The Tiger’s Bride,” and “The Lady in the House of Love,” but YMMV – and it’s almost sure to. Do yourself a favor, though, and read this collection in order. Many of the tales play off previous ones, and skipping around may dilute the effect.




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Searchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and FantasticSearchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic by S.T. Joshi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


[Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology. I won’t be discussing it here.]

Taking its inspiration from a quote by H.P. Lovecraft (in “The Picture in the House”), this anthology focuses on weird places and disturbing locales – from a variety of perspectives. Not all are Lovecraftian, though a goodly number are.

Although the stories do have some flow between them – assuming they are read in sequence – this is a remarkably diverse assortment. Straight-up Lovecraftian adventure? It’s here. Haunted house tales? Also here. Ditto for dark SF, literary weirdness, at least one bit of graphic violence, and many approaches in between. The quality in general is quite high, though these tales skew toward “disturbing” rather than “blatantly horrific.”

My personal favorites in this one were by John Shirley, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Simon Strantzas, Brian Stableford, and Nancy Kilpatrick.




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The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This lyrical, melancholy, & frequently strange novel is set in post-Arthurian Britain, somewhere between historical & magical. The land lies under a strange mist which thwarts long-term memory, though many suspect this has advantages as well as disadvantages.

When an elderly pair of Britons set out from their underground community to find their son in a neighboring town, they find themselves entangled in increasingly mythic situations. Their traveling companions include a Saxon fighter, a young orphan with a mysterious wound, and the nearly ancient Sir Gawain (yes, that Gawain) -- all in search of a she-dragon who may be causing the mist.

This set-up may sound like standard fantasy, but nothing about this journey is straightforward or completely explained. Ishiguro changes viewpoint characters often – though always with proper identification – and the reader is never sure how much of what he/she has just learned is real & how much is false memory. The ending is heartbreaking, though some loose ends remain. Or perhaps it’s only that dragon mist . . .

I was torn between four stars and five for this one, but finally settled on four due to a few too many “what just happened?” or “how does this relate to the overall plot?” moments. I suspect some might be my fault rather than the author’s. I’m an experienced consumer of fantasy fiction, but this tale is definitely on the thin literary edge of that genre.




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Dreams from a Black NebulaDreams from a Black Nebula by Wade German

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a generously-sized collection of (mainly) formal dark verse, skewing toward the Clark Ashton Smith end of the weirdness spectrum. The poems are divided into five sections, one of which seemed to be a loosely-connected sequence (“Songs from the Nameless Hermitage”).

Wade German is a relative newcomer to weird poetry, but he’s a fine technician in a wide variety of forms – sonnets are a particular favorite in this collection – and knows how to vary them for effect. His free verse is also well-structured and effective, though possibly less musical.
The overall effect of these poems is rich and dreamlike, and I found myself taking them a few at a time rather than rushing through.

Recommended for fans of traditional genre poetry, Weird Tales-style dark fantasy, or both.




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The GolemThe Golem by Gustav Meyrink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This “review” is more in the nature of a few comments on my first-time reading experience. I am frankly not qualified to discuss German language literature – even in what I’m told is an excellent translation. I know little about Gustav Meyrink, beyond a couple of biographical articles, and I’ve never read anything by him before.

That said, I’ve just had a truly mind-bending excursion through the Jewish ghetto of pre-WW I Prague. The atmosphere is pure Gothic. The narrator is thoroughly unreliable, even to himself. He may or may not be dreaming the entire story – though he denies it – and he spends a lot of that time in various altered states. In the process, he is introduced to a dizzying variety of occult concepts (and traditions!). He falls in and out of love, meets up with a cast of grotesque villains and hapless heroes, gets drawn into a murder plot, finds himself imprisoned . . . on and on, in the sort of dream-logic plot that never fully resolves.

Or maybe it does, and I was just too bewildered to recognize that.

I can’t say that this was the clearest narrative I’ve ever read, but it was definitely one of the weirdest (in a very good way). The Golem is currently celebrating its hundredth year since publication, so this one’s got staying power. If you enjoy the Gothic, the weird, or the dark esoteric, it’s probably well worth your time.




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Love & Other PoisonsLove & Other Poisons by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is an remarkably varied collection of dark fantasy tales – some darker than others – likely to appeal to those who prefer their terrors subtle. Many reflect the author’s Mexican heritage, adding a unique flavor to everything from the Lovecraftian “Collect Call” to the nearly SF “Distant Deeps Or Skies.” Another particularly successful tale in this collection is “A Puddle of Blood,” which introduces Aztec mythology into the world of the undead. The world-building in this one is intriguing, and leaves the reader hoping for more about these characters.



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