The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Taryn St. Giles is an out of work archaeologist, who has taken up bounty hunting in order to pay the overdue rent, after the untimely death of her current patron. However, her latest target turns out to be considerably more than she can handle. For Alric is a master of both disguise and hand-to-hand combat, and Taryn’s pursuit of him rapidly entangles the heroine in a deepening web of magic and intrigue. The titular artifact – which doesn’t actually show up until well into the second half – is a potential gate, which could open a doorway and leave this world a thoroughly unpleasant place for just about everyone. Fortunately, Taryn has friends both academic and physically-inclined on her side, as well as a trio of semi-domesticated fairies. Though the last-named are engaged in their own war, with a local family of squirrels.

That last sentence should give you an idea that this is not a novel which takes itself, its world or its heroine entirely seriously. And that’s half the appeal, with Taryn being a snarky yet persistent little tomb raider, who is genuinely appealing. Her curiosity is forever getting the better of her – but she has to rely much more on her wits than any Lara Croft-esque antics. Well, except when intoxicated, when she gets a bit… strange. That change manifests itself in a couple of different ways, at least one of which proves essential to the plot at the climax. It’s the only true major set-piece in terms of direct action involving her, but Taryn’s other qualities – bravery, loyalty, inquisitiveness and a moderate resistance to magic – are sufficient to get her over the threshold here. Indeed, it came as a surprise in the middle of the book, when she explicitly stated she has “no real skill” with weapons.

This wasn’t the only unexpected twist. While there are references to trolls, elves, etc. it also turns out that one major character is mostly feline and another is (I think) snake. That aspect of the world could have been made a great deal clearer. Otherwise, however, Andreas has a good eye for quirky personalities. Particularly outstanding are the trio of fairies – Crusty Bucket, Garbage Blossom and Leaf Grub – and their monarch, “High Queen Princess Buttercup Turtledove RatBatZee Growltigerious Mungoosey, Empress of all.” Glorious.

Both Taryn and Alric appear to have their share of dark secrets buried in the past – very deeply buried, in her case. While I strongly suspect there will be more romantic tension down the road, those aspects are kept light here. Indeed, Taryn’s spectacular fail of a dating experience, chronicled here, would likely put me off the opposite sex for quite a while. It works perfectly well as a standalone book, building to an appropriate finale and wrapping up most of the immediate loose ends, yet leaving enough intriguing questions dangling. I’m left inclined to pick up the second volume.

Author: Marie Andreas
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Devil Dance, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This final installment (the author confirms that fact in her Acknowledgments) of the series is set in May 1921, a few months after the previous one. The book’s opening finds Jade in Zanzibar, a new setting for her, which takes her out of the Nairobi area and away from her friends there. One reviewer complained about their absence, but as a compensation, we get to not only spend some more time with Jade’s formidable Spanish-born mother, Inez, but to meet Jade’s dad as well. Her parents have come to Africa for her impending nuptials, and she and Inez plan to enjoy a relaxing sight-seeing trip while Richard del Cameron gets acquainted with his new son-in-law on a planned safari.

Since she didn’t expect to need it, Jade didn’t bring along her trusty Winchester. But Simba Jike’s reputation has preceded her, and her propensity to land in the middle of dangerous skullduggery is as much in evidence here as ever. (Luckily, she did bring her knife….) She and Inez soon encounter a sudden mysterious death, an appeal for help, and a wealthy Arab household rife with secrets. And meanwhile, back in Mombasa, their menfolk stumble across an apparent slave-trading operation –and they’re not the sort of guys who’d let that sort of thing go on without getting involved.

This is the only novel in the series to be self-published; Arruda evidently wrote it without the aid of her usual proofreading and editorial services. There was also a five-year gap between it and the preceding novel, during which she apparently had the distraction of a pregnancy, childbirth, and care for a newborn daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. (From internal evidences, I’m guessing that the early chapters may have been written before the pregnancy, and the middle and later ones after the baby had become a toddler.) These factors show in a number of typos (though none of them are bad enough to keep the reader from understanding the author’s intention), and in some discontinuity between plot elements near the beginning and the developing story, which cost the book a star.

Otherwise, the quality is very similar to the other series installments. The mystery was more deeply concealed, with several developments that genuinely surprised me. As always, the author thoroughly researched her setting(s). An element of the possibly supernatural has typically been a feature of these novels, and that’s particularly strong here, with the background of the witchcraft guild of Zanzibar’s neighboring island, Pemba, and their rites of human sacrifice. Jade’s (and Arruda’s) concern for human rights in the face of injustice is also a strong note in the book, in the face of the persistent practice of slavery, which was nominally outlawed on Zanzibar in 1897, but still went on in practice even on into the 1920s. (And it continues to flourish today in the countries of the Arabian peninsula that are still governed by Sharia law, which regulates slavery but doesn’t forbid it.)

Barb and I read this book together, as we have the whole series, and we’re both sorry to see the series end! Jade has been one of our favorite heroines, and its been a privilege to get to know her.

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Hell’s Rejects by M.R. Forbes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2
“I am going to die, surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”

The heroine in this enjoyable slice of space opera is Lieutenant Abigail Cage. She’s a “breaker” – effectively, a hacker – although one who is highly trained in combat. Her latest mission is to enter a rebel compound and recover a laptop, but the job goes awry, and she finds herself framed for treason after a cache of weapons goes mission, and sent to Hell. No, literally: that’s the name of the planet, and it’s an entirely apt one.

Once imprisoned there, two competing forces come into play. One has interest in using Cage as the guinea-pig for a program to unleash an army of superhumans. The other is Captain Olus Mann, who needs her for quite a different task. Because the rebels have stolen two cutting-edge spaceships, the Fire and the Brimstone, which could tip the balance of the ongoing conflict. Someone needs to find and retrieve them. That someone is Cage, together with a motley crew of other convicts, liberated by Capt. Mann from Hell.

The first in the “Chaos of the Covenant”  series, it strikes a decent enough balance between telling a self-contained tale and luring you in to the next volume. As the tagline at the top – not an actual quote from the book! – suggests, it falls somewhere between, and owes a big debt to, both Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad. With a side order of La Femme Nikita. There’s a big sprawling universe out there, and Cage has to try and wrangle her motley crew of species through a task which rarely seems less than an impossible assignment.

Fortunately, if a little conveniently, Mann has a very discerning eye for personnel, and put together a good team as backup, out of the pieces to hand in the prison. For instance, one is an incredible pilot, another a wiz with machinery, etc. Cage, meanwhile, can keep them all in line, both through her force of personality and with force if necessary. She’s desperate to complete the mission, win her freedom and return to her daughter – who doesn’t even know Mom is in prison, let alone has been broken out in order to chase a stolen spaceship across the galaxy.

Meanwhile, there’s also the side-effects of the experimental injection she received while in Hell. If only apparently half of what she could have received, the effects are impressive, effectively rendering her near-bulletproof. [She can still be shot, it just… doesn’t appear to have any real effect] This could have ended up being a real “Mary Sue,” in the sense of a heroine who is utterly unstoppable. Except those responsible want to track Cage down, and send Trin after the heroine. She is another woman who has gone through both halves of the process, making her a particularly tenacious adversary. This leads to the final epic battle, in a series of what must be said, are largely epic battles.

Yeah, if you’re fond of large-scale destruction, this book certainly delivers. The carnage begins with the scene where the two spaceships are stolen, that escalates into the demolition of an entire spaceport: like many sequences, it seems written with one eye on a cinematic adaptation. Refreshingly free of romantic distractions, this does an excellent job of setting up its universe and populating it with interesting characters, each of whom have their own, interlocking agendas. Indeed, it may perhaps be slightly overstuffed with ideas, species and technology. Better too much invention than too little though, and it’s a series I can see myself picking up subsequent volumes down the road.

Author: M.R. Forbes
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, available through Amazon, both as an ebook and a paperback.

Outsystem by M. D. Cooper

Literary rating: starstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This is certainly “hard” SF, by which I mean a story driven by (and to a large extent, more interested in) scientific advancements. In tits 42nd-century future, humanity has expanded to fill the entire solar system, and is now reaching out with colony ships to nearby stars. One such ship, the Intrepid, is being assembled at the Mars Outer Shipyards, one of the massive ring-like complexes which surround the planet. But not everyone wants the project to succeed. Major Tanis Richards, who will be one of the colonists, is first tasked with ensuring the project’s security. The scope of her job becomes apparent quickly, as immediately on arrival, she has to fend off a terrorist attack, trying to set off a nuke on the Intrepid. It’s just the first of a number of sabotage attempts.

There is a lot of tech here, to the extent that the book includes multiple appendices, devoted to explanations of it. Everyone is interfaced to networks, each other and their own AIs – Tanis’s is called Angela – and medical advances mean age is now little more than a number. I found it a bit much, as if technology had become a gigantic, all-encompassing “Mary Sue” of unstoppable power. Whatever the problem… Well, there’s an app for that. The reality, as we’ve seen, is that new technology tends to create as many new problems as it solves: you don’t get much sense of that here. The issues are more old fashioned than that: terrorism is now corporate-sponsored, rather than state-sponsored.

The storyline also tends to get bogged down at times, in an alphabet soup of organizational structure. It seems as if the Major spends as much time in meetings, as actively hunting down the bad guys: it almost turns her into the world’s first bureaucratic action heroine. There are frustratingly incomplete hints at her past, with an incident which caused her to be tagged “The Butcher of Toro“. Though it’s suggested this is an unfair sobriquet, the incident – whatever it was – appears to have played a significant role in her decision to apply to become a colonist. Such an important piece of character motivation likely should not be swathed in such mystery, though it’s possible the details are revealed in one of the later volumes in this three-book arc.

Re-reading the above, this all seems highly negative, more so than it deserves – though I note Cooper recently released an expanded version of this and its sequel, which does suggest he was perhaps not satisfied with the first version. Still, despite flaws, such as a supporting cast who could have used more fleshing out (particularly Joe, the uninteresting romantic interest), I found the pages turned at a a solid rate, and the action sequences generally hit the spot. The version I read included the first couple of chapters of part two, A Path in the Darkness, and it possesses a good enough premise to make me consider going forward. Less is likely more, and the smaller-scale setting of the Intrepid is perhaps a better fit for Cooper’s voice, which isn’t strong enough to populate the entire solar system here.

Author: M.D. Cooper
Publisher: The Wooden Pen Press, available through Amazon, in both printed and e-book versions.

Molly and the Gold Baron, by Stephen Overholser

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Stephen Overholser is the son of acclaimed Western author Wayne Overholser, who’s followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer of Westerns; both father and son have been Spur Award winners. The younger Overholser created the character of Molly Owens as the protagonist of one of his early novels, Molly and the Confidence Man (1975), and went on to write five more novels featuring her. Orphaned young, Molly and her now-deceased brother survived a rough childhood on their own; after he came West, she answered an ad and went to work for the Fenton Detective Agency, which is fictional, but modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Agency –which actually did employ women detectives, Kate Warne becoming the first in 1856.

Overholser set much of his work in his native Colorado; Molly’s based in Denver, and this tale is set in the real-life Colorado mining boom town of Cripple Creek in ca. 1893. That setting is actually drawn with considerable accuracy, and the depiction of the community’s history and labor troubles in that period reflects actual realities, with some license and changing of names. (I’ll give Overholser credit for doing serious research.) While I wouldn’t describe the author’s characterizations as sharp, Molly comes across as a kind person who cares about justice, as well as both brave and capable. She approaches her detective work with good observation skills and intuition (and isn’t above picking a lock or two if that’s what it takes to hunt for evidence).

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, debuting in 1982 in A Is for Alibi, is usually considered literature’s first gun-packing female detective who could handle rough stuff if the baddies wanted to throw it at her. Yet Molly preceded her by seven years and is no shrinking violet where combat is concerned, either with her double-action Colt or with her fists and feet (and she can deliver a pretty nasty head-butt as well); she just was never noticed by mystery-genre critics because her venue is in a different genre. Here, her assignment calls for her to get to the bottom of a pregnant prostitute’s bogus paternity suit against a newly-rich prospector; but the case soon morphs into an unauthorized murder investigation, in the context of a labor dispute between mine owners and mine workers that threatens to become a blood bath. (Some on both sides are up for illegal violence, but the mine owners and their thugs are the more dangerously violent.)

As is true of some other works in this genre that I’ve read, the author’s prose style is mediocre, adequate but uninspired, workmanlike pulp that does the job in an undistinguished way; he tells the story and allows you to picture the action and settings, but this isn’t a novel you’d read for scintillating dialogue, vivid turns of phrase, telling details, or description that soars and sings. His plotting is on a similar level; towards the end, a couple of characters make some decisions that serve the storyline, but struck me as dubiously likely to have been made had this been a real-life narrative in the same situation. The mystery element isn’t very deeply mysterious in the long run.

Despite its flaws,though, I basically liked the book as passing light entertainment, and liked and admired the heroine for her genuine good qualities. Personally, I won’t bother seeking out the rest of the series; but if you’re a Western fan who doesn’t demand much from your books and read for recreation, you could certainly pick a lot worse books, with a lot worse messages. And at 172 pages, it’s a relatively short read, and doesn’t require a lot of thought.

Note: Bad language, of the d-word/h-word sort, is minimal and Molly herself pretty clean in her own speech; I wouldn’t guarantee that she never lets a cuss word slip under stress (I don’t have the book in front of me to check) but she certainly doesn’t make it a noticeable habit. There are three explicit sex scenes. (They can be skipped over with no loss of anything.) However, this isn’t a romance as such, nor is it a trashy “adult Western”.

Author: Stephen Overholser
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Girl of Fire, by Norma Hinkens

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

You might be forgiven for expecting something Hunger Games-like, given Katniss was referred to frequently as the “girl on fire,” only one letter different from the title here. That really isn’t the case at all: though both are, broadly speaking, science-fiction, instead of an urban dystopia, this is sprawling space opera. The heroine, 17-year-old Trattora, lives on Cwelt, a fringe planet largely overlooked and bypassed by the rest of the galaxy. She’s a chieftain’s daughter there, but was adopted, and is clearly different from the rest of her people; she yearns to find the truth about her ancestry.

Her chance comes in the form of a trade-ship, captained by the untrustworthy Sarth. For it’s discovered that Cwelt is a source for dargonite, a mineral now in high demand for its use in cloaking technology. Before this can be announced, the planet comes under threat from the raiding Maulers, and Trattora strikes an uneasy bargain with the visiting captain, to sell dargonite in order to buy ships which can defend Cwelt. However, after an apparent double-cross, Trattora steals Sarth’s ship from under her nose, and strikes out on her own, to take care of business – and also locate her biological parents.

The latter thread doesn’t occupy much of this, the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Expulsion Project’. That title is explained at the beginning: proceedings open with her parents on Mhakerta, sending Trattora into space, in a last-ditch effort to escape the clutches of an all-powerful AI who has taken over their planet. The only thing Trattora has left as a link with her parents is a bracelet – when she finds a similar item belonging to Velkan, an indentured serf in Serth’s crew, she realizes there are apparently others like her. But this book is more concerned with her attempting to sell the valuable minerals, and adapting to life in a universe very different from the one to which she is used.

The cover is rather misleading, since as soon as Trattora gets off the surface of Cwelt, she more or less abandons the “barbarian chic” aesthetic, as far as I can tell. Probably wise: carrying a spear around would likely attract undue attention in any space-faring civilization. Indeed, she largely avoids violence, hence the low kick-butt quotient. She still qualifies here, due to what would probably be described on her resume as “a pro-active approach to problem-solving, demonstrated ability at adapting to new situations, and proven leadership skills.” She’s certainly brave, prepared to risk everything to save her adopted home planet, loyal to her friends, and resourceful – all-round, she has the qualities of a good heroine.

I’m less convinced with the writing when it comes to the universe building, beginning with planet names which feel like the author made them up by pulling tiles from a Scrabble bag. You don’t get much sense of a structured universe, despite the apparently overwhelming presence of “The Syndicate”, a group whose power is vaguely ineffectual, except when necessary to the plot. This is where the “space opera” label becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I appreciated the brisk pace, Trattora and her pals whizzing from one incident to the next, the idea of a teenage girl hijacking a spaceship on her first trip off-world, from its far more world-wise captain, with most of the crew supporting her, was only one of a number of moments which stretched my credulity. It was just far too easy.

This probably falls into the category of a fun read rather than a good one, and is thoroughly disposable fluff. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, this likely panders a little too much in the direction of the young adult audience, to be entirely acceptable for anyone who has grown out of that group.

Author: Norma Hinkens
Publisher: Dunecadia Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Last Girl, by Joe Hart

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

There are elements here which reminded me of Children of Men, though this is set further down the road, when civilization has decayed a good deal further. The issue here is slightly different: specifically, a lack of female children, which has triggered a rapid collapse into anarchy for the United States. 25 years later, the National Obstetric Alliance (NOA) seek far and wide for young girls, who are brought to their compound in the Pacific Northwest, to be held until the age of 21 when… Well, their fate gets a bit murky. Approaching that point is Zoey, who has known almost no other life. But after she’s subjected to a harrowing bout of psychological torture in a sensory-deprivation chamber called “the box”, her whole attitude changes, and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to escape, and take the other women with her.

It’s clear the exact moment and paragraph at which Zoey changes: “A searing desire for vengeance sweeps through her, turning her blood molten hot within her veins and with it the will to exact revenge on those responsible, to destroy what should be obliterated. To reap justice.” Before that, she has been somewhat cowed. A little rebellious, but in small ways, such as reading forbidden literature (The Count of Monte Cristo, perhaps a little too obvious a choice!). Afterward? She becomes a single-minded zealot, intent on the destruction of NOA and those who run it – and all the more interesting for it. But that’s a mission which will open up not only NOA’s darkest secrets, it will also expose how far Zoey is prepared to go in her mission.

As well as Children, there are definitely echoes of A Handmaid’s Tale, with one gender largely reduced to breeding chattel in a theocratic dictatorship [the concept of women as property, is hinted at briefly here with the “Fae Trade”, and appears to be explored further in later volumes]. I’m always down for a good dystopia, and despite the pieces being somewhat familiar, Hart has put them together in an interesting and effective manner, particularly in the second half when Zoey discovers the outside world, and realizes not everyone is like the NOA. My qualms are mostly with the plotting of the first half: if these young women really were the last hope of mankind, wouldn’t they be treated rather better? As in, propped up on couches and fed grapes, rather than kept in conditions resembling a Japanese women-in-prison film.

Still, I can understand why Hart opted for another approach. It would have made for a more ambivalent story-line, rather than NOA and its operatives being the obvious villains of the piece they need to be, and might have robbed Zoey of her moral drive to action. The interesting question – albeit one left unaddressed here – would be whether her lying and putting others in danger, never mind the actual killing, are justified; does the noble end justify her means? Though you could perhaps argue, jeopardizing the future of humanity for your own freedom, is selfish in the extreme. Zoey’s transition certainly makes for one of the more dramatic arcs I’ve read, although her easy adeptness with weapons is somewhat implausible.

Despite these weaknesses, which may seem quite significant, it must be said they didn’t stop me from enjoying the tale as it was told, and there’s still a decent amount to commend this. It’s a nicely self-contained story, yet leaves the door open enough to leave me genuinely interested in reading more. The romantic angles are kept secondary, and there’s a plausibility about the way in which society has fallen apart, that makes this border on disturbing. When the world ends, it may not be with a bang, so much as the sound of us tearing each other apart.

Author: Joe Hart
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

This sixth installment in Arruda’s outstanding series has much in common, in terms of style and other characteristics, with the preceding five. We pick up here in February 1921, and our setting is the familiar one of Nairobi and its environs; all or most of the supporting cast we’ve come to like are here, as well as Jade herself.

Early on in the story, Jade becomes an inadvertent witness to a clandestine body disposal (Inspector Finch once wryly commented that she “attracts corpses,” and that’s running true to form here!), and other deaths will follow, seeming to be connected with a mysterious purported gold mining operation in the northern reaches of the colony. Intertwined with these events is the menace of a huge, man-eating piebald crocodile, whose depredations along the Athi River are a concern to both the Kikuyu natives and the authorities. More than one concealed identity factors into the situation, and as usual there is a soupcon of traditional African supernatural belief flavoring the mix. The setting continues to be strongly evoked.

It can be said, though, that this is one of the better constructed and more challenging mysteries in the series. Based on my knowledge of how Arruda writes, I was smugly certain that I had identified one of the principal villains as soon as the character was introduced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; and I had no clue about the other one, either. I did see through one concealed identity, but otherwise, Arruda does a masterful job here of hiding her clues in plain sight And the final chapters before the wrap-up are a tour de force of excitement and suspenseful tension as the author maneuvers various characters into position for a climactic confrontation that doesn’t disappoint.

More than most entries in the series, too, this one is no running in place operation in terms of an overall story arc; this volume will bring significant changes to Jade’s life. Indeed, there are some indications that this (so far) penultimate entry may originally have been intended as the series finale. (All six of the first books were published by Big Publishing, and no more than a year apart. The seventh book was self-published, and only after a five year gap.)

As always, I would recommend reading the series in order, rather than trying to start with this book. It would lose a lot without the built-up familiarity with the characters and their history in relation to each other. But series fans won’t be disappointed in any respect!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Pale Queen Rising by A.R. Kahler

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

Claire is the official “court assassin” to Mab, who is the Winter Faerie Queen. Her realm lies in a world parallel to ours, but separate from it, and inhabited by a slew of creatures we humans know only from myth, who can travel back and forth to the mortal world. Mab traffics in “Dream”, which is somewhere between a food, a drug and currency for her citizens, and the product of human emotions, particularly in group settings such as concerts or other shows. However, someone is muscling in on her turf, with the intent of controlling the Dream, and she unleashes Claire to track down the culprit, who turns out to be the ‘Pale Queen’ of the title.

Claire is actually human: she was taken as a child, replaced by a changeling, and brought up by Mab in a palace of ice, not even knowing her real last name. But she’s more used to tasks that require blunt application of force, and is increasingly troubled as her investigation brings her past back out of the shadows – in particular, the apparent involvement of her biological mother with the Immortal Circus, which seems to serve as a front for the illicit trade. There’s also Roxie, a mortal singer who has signed a contract giving her the fame she seeks, in exchange for being a conduit through which Dream can be harvested – and to whose allure Claire is not immune.

Takes a little bit for the situation here to become clear. It wasn’t until a good way in that I figured out the details of what “Dream” was; since this is kinda important to the plot, it should likely have been laid out from the get-go. For an assassin, it has to be said, Claire really doesn’t do much assassin-ing in this volume and that, too, needed to be more effectively established. Anyone can proclaiming themselves an assassin. She does have some moderately bad-ass magical skills, and solid hand-to-hand combat talents, and she needs both of these, as well as help from her own allies, when going up against the Pale Queen’s minions, who have abilities of their own. More likely needed, however.

The heroine has a nicely sarcastic approach to life that is endearing, and Kahler has crafted a world with plenty of potential. However, it feels like a lot of that potential was left dangling. For instance, early on, Claire says, “Monsters can come from anywhere with a flat surface.” At least in this book, that intriguing premise is left unexplored. Most of the time, too, Claire is apparently meandering round in the human world, only popping back occasionally to the, likely more interesting, faerie realm. It may be the case that this works better if you’ve read the author’s previous series, which focuses on the Immortal Circus. As a standalone, however, this is no more than alright, and ends in the unsatisfactory “buy the second volume” way, which I’m increasingly discovering appears to be a thing with e-books.

Author: A.R. Kahler
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.