The Hundredth Queen, by Emily R. King

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

An interesting premise gets wasted, buried under a muddied writing style which sets up in one direction, then abandons it for another. Orphan Kalinda has been brought up by The Sisterhood in their remote temple in the mountains (kinda Indian, kinda Sumerian, annoyingly non-specific), training in the ways of a warrior – though others have far more talent in the era. Her life is upended when the local monarch, Tarek, visits the temple and selects Kalinda to be his next wife. Next, as in he already has 99, not to mention his additional courtesans. The problem for Kalinda is, this sets up a tournament in which she can be challenged by the other women, who seek to supplant her.

The journey to Tarek’s palace is barely under way before two issues rear their head, that drive the plot the rest of the way. One is Kalinda falling into a forbidden love for Deven, the guard who’s escorting her. The other is her encounter with a “bhuta”. These are half-human, half-demons, who exist in four kinds, each possessing power over the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Might this, perhaps, be connected to the mysterious fevers from which Kalinda has been suffering from a child, only kept in check by her daily consumption of a potion?

Of course it is. For the book rarely strays from the obvious, virtually from the start when Kalinda immediately falls head-over-heels in love, with literally the first man she has ever seen. There’s no sense of chemistry here at all, or of a romance growing naturally out of the characters. It seems shoehorned in there because, dammit, it was on a checklist of things fantasy books need to be successful, which King found online somewhere. The interactions between Kalinda and the other women weren’t much more convincing, sitting somewhere between Mean Girls and The Hunger Games.

I’m not even clear on the details of the tournament, which is supposed to be the main plot device of the book. Who challenges who? What are the mechanics here? What does Tarek get out of it? It’s the ultimate plot-device, since his motivation for setting up the event is entirely obscure. It’s not as if he can exactly stream the event on pay-per-view. There are a couple of plot twists later on, that did manage to engage my interest briefly – these did help explain why Tarek picked Kalinda, when we had repeatedly been assured earlier of her plainness and lack of talent.

However, the actual competition is largely glossed over with a disapproving frown, culminating in a big, damp squib of pacifistic grrl power. This is less drama than melodrama, with every character being exactly what they appear to be, and possessing few hidden depths. The last third of this proved to be a particular slog, and it’s not a universe to which I’ll be returning in future.

Author: Emily R. King
Publisher: Skyscape, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Manchester Detective Sergeant Jan Pearce is part of an investigation into local crime lord, Connelly, whose family has managed to evade the reach of the law for decades. Indeed, this is the second recent investigation, the previous effort having collapsed, apparently due to procedural blunders. But the boss isn’t taking it lying down, beginning a campaign of intimidation against those investigating him. This hits DS Pearce, with the disappearance of her teenage son, Aiden: she’s convinced this is retribution from Connelly. But neither her colleagues on the force, nor her ex-husband, Sal, agree – they think Aiden simply ran off.

When investigating one of Connelly’s properties, Pearce finds the body of an old woman – along with a bag of cash and her hand-written memoir. It turns out the deceased, Bessy, and Jan had something in common – both had sons that went missing. As she reads the memoir and proceeds with the investigation of Connelly, Pearce gradually realizes that might not be all she shared with Bessie. But the truth about what is actually going on, in the underworld hidden below the working-class estates of Northern England, is infinitely more terrible than either of them would ever have imagined. And considering Bessy thought her son might be a victim of the infamous Moors Murderers (whom she refers to, only as “him” and “her”), that’s saying something.

I’m very much impressed by the way Ward is able to write in two entirely different voices. The sections which are Bessy’s writings, are completely different in tone and style from Jan’s, to the point it almost feels separate novels have had their chapters intertwined. The two women are opposites in many ways. Jan is a career policewoman, who has sacrificed a lot for the job – maybe too much, including her marriage and perhaps even her relationship with Aiden. Meanwhile Bessy is a housewife of the 1960’s, with no interest at all beyond being a home-maker. But the sudden loss of their child turns their worlds upside-down, and forces them to reassess what truly “matters”. Bessy’s life is, literally, never the same again, and there’s undeniable poignancy there, especially near the end of her story.

Both exhibit an utterly dogged determination to pursue what they see as the truth, regardless of the cost or what others may think. In Jan’s case, that leads her into direct peril, because she’s going up against some very dangerous people, who have good reason to prefer privacy. There’s a certain amount of happy coincidence needed for her to unravel the threads, yet there’s no denying her bravery, intelligence and tenacity. The special ops skills, of surveillance and its avoidance, don’t hurt either, though I’d have liked to see more of them being put to use. While the first in the series, it works as an entirely stand-alone novel. If you manage to see where this is going before it happens, you’re a better armchair detective than I.

Author: Jacqueline Ward
Publisher: Novelesque, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Dominion Rising collection

I am a sucker for bulk-buying. Regular readers will know this, since one of the first things reviewed here was the Women Who Kick Butt DVD box-set, which was a mixed bag, to say the least. But it did introduce me to Sister Street Fighter, so I consider the effort well-spent. So when an offer popped up on my Kindle app, giving me the chance to purchase no less than twenty-three novels for the low, low pre-purchase price of 99 cents, it didn’t take me long to click on ‘Buy Now’.

Kinda regretting that decision. Not due to quality (at least, not so far), and not due to a lack of action heroine content. It’s just that there is an insane amount of content in the Dominion Rising collection. Amazon lists it at 5,563 pages, which at my low rate of reading (it’s a good day if I get 25 minutes in) is probably close to a year before it’d be finished. Rather than waiting for that, I’ve opted to review the individual items as I finish them – as long as they meet the usual site criteria, and I can find some kind of artwork with which to illustrate the piece. They’ll appear both as stand-alone reviews, and below.

One thing I am noticing already – and it’s rather annoying – is the tendency for the stories here to be incomplete, frequently ending on cliff-hangers, rather than offering a fully-formed and finished tale. It may seem churlish to complain, when I paid less than a nickel per book. But the discount box-sets of DVDs that I’ve bought, don’t cut off the movies after 60 minutes, and then require you to buy the last reel at a higher price. Even if I’m somewhat enjoying a story, an abrupt ending followed by an exhortation to buy volume two, is not likely to have the desired impact. Finish off telling a good story, and the odds of me buying more from you are significantly better.

Below, find the full list of contents, which will be read in order – titles struck through are ones that didn’t qualify for the site, and will be skipped.

  • Reign of Steel and Bone by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
  • Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
  • Sorcery & Science by Ella Summers
  • Spectral Shift by Daniel Arthur Smith
  • Petra: Immortal Codex, Book 1 by Cheri Lasota
  • Infinite Waste by Dean F. Wilson
  • Girard The Guardian by Ann Christy
  • Flicker by Rebecca Rode
  • Star Compass by Anthea Sharp
  • Vengeance: Warships of the Spire by S. M. Schmitz & Lisa Blackwood
  • Touching Infinity by Erin Hayes
  • Death Plague by K. J. Colt
  • Curiouser and Curiouser by Melanie Karsak
  • Ultras by Timothy C. Ward
  • Maze: The Waking of Grey Grimm by Tony Bertauski
  • Blood for Stone by Logan T. Snyder
  • The Incurables by Felix R. Savage
  • Ferromancer by Becca Andre
  • The Other by Marilyn Peake
  • New York by J.C. Andrijeski
  • Rift Cursed by Margo Bond Collins
  • The Zoo at the End of the World by Samuel Peralta
  • Iron Tamer by Tom Shutt (incomplete)

Authors: Various
Publisher: Pronoun, available through Amazon as an e-book only. Some entries may also be available individually, as noted in their entries below.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

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Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

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Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

Almost all the action heroine novels I’ve read of late have been Volume 1 in a series. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does tend to lead to a sense of unfulfilled resolution. “Happy ever after” is frequently replaced by a semi-cliffhanger, intend to separate the reader from their cash for Volume 2. It rarely works, and is more likely to annoy me. After all, I’ve invested significant quantities of time (if not perhaps money; these introductory items tend to be of the 99-cent variety, so I guess the buyer should beware) in each tale, and to be left dangling is frustrating. That’s why it was especially nice to read a book like this, which tells a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and a solid, satisfactory end.

It plays like a feminist version of a Grimm fairy tale. The heroine is 15-year-old Rhea, a miller’s daughter whose life is upended after a member of the local nobility, Crevan, requests her hand in marriage. This comes as a shock to everyone, not least Rhea. Her parents are hardly in any position to refuse, and Rhea is packed off to Crevan’s manor, where a further shock awaits her. As the title suggests, she’s not exactly the first proposal – and the other six women are still present on the estate, from which no escape is possible, since it’s like the fairy-tale version of the Hotel Californa. Nor are they in the same status as which they arrived, for Crevan has a very nasty agenda, taking one precious thing from each of his betrothed. There’s the clock wife, for example. And you probably don’t want to know about the golem wife. How can Rhea escape the fate of the previous brides, given she has never battled anything nastier than an upset swan?

The fairy-tale aspect is mostly in the characters. Rhea is good and pure and kind, like all the best princesses. Crevan is the archetypal “wicked stepmother” of proceedings: evil for no more particular reason than because the plot requires it. Indeed, he’s entirely absent from the great bulk of this, popping back occasionally to give Rhea a new task. But the heroine here is a good deal more pro-active than your classic Disney princess, and there is absolutely no Prince Charming, who’s going to sweep in and rescue her. She’s entirely reliant on her own wits, bravery and persistence, and the story is all the better for that. The feminist aspects are obvious, though are handled lightly enough to be non-didactic; Rhea’s problems are as much a result of class problems as gender ones.

The fantastic elements, such as the wild and bizarre domain where the clock wife resides, play more like Lewis Carroll. Indeed, I got a strong Tim Burton-esque vibe overall here; maybe Helena Bonham-Carter could play one (or here’s an idea – all?) of the previous wives. Kingfisher (the awkward name is actually a pen-name for Ursula Vernon, intended to separate works like this from the children’s books which are her bread and butter) has a darkish wit to her writing as well. That comes through particularly in Rhea’s internal monologues, and gives her a grounded and common sense feel, which is especially appealing. Ironically, it’s one of those cases where I wouldn’t actually mind further stories in the series.

Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author’s Doucet series. However, that nominal “series” is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff’s deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who’d like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)

Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures, with references to things like zydeco music. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she’s clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle’s classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff’s office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he’s guilty –but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.

Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren’t obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people’s; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of –only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn’t just an intellectual puzzle; it’s a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.

This can be a very dark novel (and I’m told that’s often characteristic of Hoag’s work). The murder and rapes themselves aren’t directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren’t alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn’t have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn’t intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (That’s not a bad authorial aim!) Disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn’t presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.)

Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn’t stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms –which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn’t Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)

Since I’m trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I’m not planning to pursue this one. But I’d definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I’d be open to reading more of her work sometime.

Note: While it’s not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. There’s also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.

Author: Tami Hoag
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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.