The Fire Beneath The Skin series, by Victor Gischler

Ink Mage

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The small duchy of Klaar has been impervious to invasion, due to a secure location offering limited access. But when betrayal from within leads to its fall, to the vanguard of an invading Perranese army, heir apparent Rina Veraiin is forced on the run. She is fortunate to encounter one of a handful of people who know how to create mystic tattoos that will imbue the recipient with magical abilities. With her already significant combat skills radically enhanced, and her body now also blessed with a remarkable talent to heal, Rina can set about trying to recover her domain. It won’t be easy, since the king is not even aware the Perranese have landed. But she has help, albeit in the motley forms of a stable boy – sorry, head stable boy – a gypsy girl and a noble scion, whose charm is exceeded only by his ability to irritate.

Despite the young age of the protagonist, who is still a teenager, this isn’t the Young Adult novel it may seem. It’s rather more Game of Thrones in both style and content, with the point of view switching between a number of different characters. Some of these can be rather graphic, particularly the story of Tosh, an army deserter who ends up working as a cook in a Klaar brothel. But even this thread turns out more action-heroine oriented than you’d expect. For the madam gets Tosh to train the working girls in weaponcraft, so they can become an undercover (literally!) rebel force against the Perranese. Can’t say I saw that, ah, coming…

Gischler seems better known as a hard-boiled crime fiction author – though I must confess to being probably most intrigued by his satirical novel titled, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse! The approach here does feel somewhat fragmented, yet is likely necessary, given the amount of time Rina spends galloping around the countryside. It may also be a result of the book’s original format as a serial. However, it translates well enough to a single volume, and I found it became quite a page-turner in the second half. There, Rina readies her forces to return to Klaar, and take on the occupying forces, which have settled in for the winter. 

The tattoo magic is a nice idea, effectively providing “superpowers” that can help balance out the obvious limitations of a young, largely untrained heroine. It is somewhat disappointing that, after significant build-up involving the Perranese’s own tattooed warrior, the actual battle between him and Rina seemed to be over in two minutes – and decided through an external gimmick, rather than by her own skill. In terms of thrills, it’s significantly less impressive than a previous battle, pitting her against a really large snake, or even the first use of Rina’s abilities, which takes place against a wintry wilderness backdrop – more GoT-ness, perhaps?

Such comparisons are unlikely to flatter many books, and this is at its best when finding its own voice, as in the tattooing, or the gypsies who become Rina’s allies. He does avoid inflicting any serial cliffhanger ending on us, instead tidying up the majority of loose ends, and giving us a general pointer toward the second in the three-volume series. Overall, I liked the heroine and enjoyed this, to the point where I might even be coaxed into spending the non-discounted price for that next book.

The Tattooed Duchess
A Painted Goddess

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

It makes sense to treat the second and third volumes in the series as a single entity. Ink Mage worked on its own as a one-off, with a beginning, middle and reasonably well-defined end, and the eight-month pause between installments was not a problem. Duchess and Goddess, however, really need to be read back-to-back. Mage ended with Rina Veraiin having recovered her family’s territory of Klaar, thanks largely to the magical tattoos covering her skin. But the new duchess is discovering that fighting to get territory is one thing, ruling over it on an everyday basis, quite another. Especially since the Perranese invaders repelled in the first volume, are on their way back with a vengeance. For their Empress Mee Hra’Lito needs a big win to keep control of things on her side of the ocean.

Rumbling in the background, and coming to a head particularly in Goddess, is a changing of the guard in the Kingdom of Helva’s divine pantheon, with the current incumbent as top god being challenged for that position. Disturbingly, the likely replacement is the god of war: never a good thing, especially when he can raise an army of unstoppable dead soldiers and send them after Rina and her allies. Dealing with both those threats, requires Rina to ink up some more. Since she’s otherwise engaged, that means sending expeditions to the furthest corners of the lands and beyond, to retrieve the templates needed for Rina’s power-ups. [Though part of the problem is, these don’t come with instructions, explaining what a tattoo will do…] 

In particular, off to the Scattered Isles go stable-boy Alem, who carries a torch for Rina, and gypsy girl Maurizan, who is interested, both in Alem and getting some magic ink of her own. Meanwhile the noble Brasley and a new character, near-immortal female wizard Talbun, are exploring the depths – or, rather, heights – of the Great Library. This is a building so vast, it remains largely unexplored, with its origins and contents lost in the mists of time. Rina, meanwhile, is on a diplomatic mission, aimed at securing support for Klaar, only to be abducted by a group of Perran soldiers and their own mages, left behind when the army withdrew.

Especially in the second volume, poor Rina is largely relegated to a supporting role. The major threat to her is, not deities or monsters, but the arguably more insidious danger of an arranged marriage, necessary for the defense of Klaar. Maurizan becomes the action heroine focus, supported by members of the “Birds of Prey”, ex-prostitutes who have become the castle guard, as well as Talbun. It’s decent, yet almost inevitably, suffers from the bane of trilogies, “second volume syndrome”, lacking both a beginning an an end [I will say, for understandable reasons, explained by the author on his site]. It was originally published in serial format, so feels a bit episodic too, though I can’t say this impacted my enjoyment particularly much.

Rather than having to wait for the next part, as readers at the time had to do, I was able to head straight on into volume three. And Gischler redeems himself admirably for any flaws, with an excellent final volume. Rina has pretty much completed her set of tats, now possessing superhuman strength, speed and healing, as well as the ability to have anyone believe what she says, plus more. However, there’s a darker side to her talents, which becomes apparent to everyone when the Perranese lay siege to the port of Sherrik. With great power comes… scary responsibility, it appears: Rina has to make some unpleasant decisions about how far she is prepared to go, in order to repel the massive invading fleet. And they aren’t even her toughest adversary.

There are a lot of disparate elements across the series, yet Gischler melds them together into a coherent whole, rather than feeling like he’s simply plugging in fantasy tropes. I was particularly impressed by how even minor characters feel well-developed, such as Mee Hra’Lito. She didn’t need to be in the book at all, being simply the force behind the big bad (or more accurately, the secondary big bad). Yet seeing her motivations, adds depth to proceedings and enhances the epic scope. On the other hand, perhaps the series’s main weakness is lacking a truly central character. Is this Rina’s story? Alem’s? Maurizan’s? The answer is both all of the above, and none of them.

Still, this is the first true series I’ve completed since beginning book reviews on the site, and I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience. Gischler hinted at further volumes in February, saying of his universe, “I feel there’s more there to be mined,” and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest – even if Rina’s role would need… let’s say “serious revision”, based on how this ends, and leave it at that. Or a Peter Jackson trilogy of films based on these: that’d do, just as well.

Author: Victor Gischler
Publisher: 47North, available in both printed and e-book versions, as folllows:

  • Ink Mage
  • Tattooed Duchess
  • A Painted Goddess

Abducted by T.R. Ragan

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

A largely uninteresting and occasionally tedious read, this begins when the 17-year-old Lizzy Gardner is abducted by a serial killer known as “Spiderman”, for his habit of using insects to terrorize his victims. Lizzy manages to escape, but Spiderman isn’t captured, until almost a decade and a half later, when someone confesses to the crimes. By then, Lizzy has become a private eye, and also giving lectures to young girls, on how to avoid falling victim as she did. She’s not convinced the right person has been caught, and she’s right: the real Spiderman is by no means happy that someone else has taken “credit” for his crimes. So he starts up again, with the eventual aim of recapturing Lizzy, the one who got away…

It’s really extremely contrived, with Lizzy fortuitously unable to recall any significant elements of her ordeal – even the place where she was held – which could have allowed the police to capture the perpetrator. Then there’s the convenient coincidence that her boyfriend of the time has grown up to become (what are the odds?) an FBI agent. Of course, when they reconnect, the old sparks still fly, and he’s also the only one who thinks she’s not a demented PTSD victim. Somewhat more engaging, to be honest, are the supporting female characters, including Jessica, Lizzie’s intern, who has her own reasons for interest in the case. Leading them is likely Hayley, an abused teenager and attendee at Lizzy’s lecture, who takes it upon herself to become bait for Spiderman, so that she can deal with him. If the whole story had been told from her point of view, it could have been a fresh perspective.

Instead, you could make the case Spiderman is given better motivation and characterization than the heroine. Although even here, it’s the usual mix of childhood trauma and hatred of women; the only unusual aspect is he seems himself as what could be described as a “social justice warrior,” punishing those he perceives as “bad girls.” Yet the prose devoted to him is one of the problems here: Ragan’s desire to show both sides of the story, almost inevitably, leaves both of them under-cooked. Despite its clear desire to be Silence of the Lambs, this most certainly falls short, on both sides of the scales of justice.

Part of the problem is that it feels like the characters are universally weighed down with the burden of a tragic past, from which they can’t escape. While I know tragedy is one of the driving forces of drama, this appears to be Ragan’s literary version of “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The plot offers virtually nothing in the way of surprises or twists, meandering on to the confrontation between Lizzie and Spiderman, which you’ve been expecting since about chapter three. There’s precious little here to explain the series’s apparent success, and even less that would get me interested in reading any further entries.

Author: T.R. Ragan
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Ro’s Handle, by Dave Lager

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Although I didn’t set out to, in roughly the past year, I’ve read no less than three novels, and one short e-story, that feature female cops as protagonists: this one, “The Academy” (the short e-story that’s the teaser for Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series), Tami Hoag’s A Thin Dark Line, and Justin W. M. Roberts’ The Policewoman. It occurred to me that an instructive way to open this review might be to compare and contrast the four works.

Like Tracy Crosswhite, Lager’s Rowan (everybody calls her “Ro”) Delahanty is a state champion in pistol shooting, who goes into law enforcement as a career. (Ro also has a black belt in judo.) And like Hoag’s Annie Broussard, she becomes a sheriff’s deputy. (Her milieu is a county dominated by a mid-sized city, sort of a median between Tracy’s Seattle and Annie’s backwoods south Louisiana parish.) The principal difference here is that both Tracy and Annie started their careers with ambitions to become detectives, and they’re protagonists of mystery series. This book has no mystery elements as such, and Ro’s vocational interest is strictly being a uniformed beat cop. She’s also younger than Tracy, and had already decided to become a cop as a fifth grade kid (whereas Tracy switched careers after teaching high school chemistry for several years), and she doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of a sibling who was murdered and a parent who committed suicide. (Instead, the Delahanty family is impeccably wholesome and normal.) So Ro’s definitely her own person, not a Tracey Crosswhite clone. And where “The Academy” focuses on the theme of sexism and sexual harassment as a challenge female cops have to face, those elements are very limited in this book, only show up near the end, and manifest themselves only in comments that aren’t made to Ro’s face.

Both Roberts’ Sarah and Ro are basically gun wizards (who, of course, have to put in a lot of training and practice to get and keep that level of skill, in addition to their natural talent!) formidable in combat, and drawn in such a way that some readers will view them each as something of a “Mary Sue” –that is, a heroine who’s too perfect to be realistic– though I didn’t see them that way. But although I classified both this novel and The Policewoman as action-adventure, the action elements in the latter are a LOT more prominent than they are here. This one has only one action scene, and that starts only in Chapter 22 of a 29-chapter book. Some readers (though I wasn’t in that number) of Robert’s book took issue with the first four chapters of character introduction/development and stage setting as being supposedly too slow-moving and boring. Those readers would really have an issue with the first 21 chapters here. And the shooting itself is actually over very quickly, as it would be in real life. Fans who have to have unremitting slam-bang action and a high body count will find this aspect limited and tame here. (Again, I’m not in that number myself, and I actually found that aspect of the book very well done.)

All three of the novels compared here provide the heroine with a “love interest” and have some “romantic” elements, including some unmarried sex. But (though I won’t include any spoilers) the overall handling of the “romantic” aspect here was, for me, highly unsatisfactory and off-putting, and would not, IMO, generally appeal to “romance” fans either. It should also be noted that the relationship escalates to sexual intercourse on the first date (which is the third time the couple have seen each other!), so has very marked insta-love issues. And Ro’s lover here is a divorced dad 13 years her senior, who has a 15-year-old daughter (Ro’s only 21).

You might ask, if this isn’t a mystery, a full-blown action novel, or a real romance, what IS its appeal? What sort of novel is it? I’d describe it as very much an intensive character study of Ro, and a very realistic “slice of contemporary life” novel describing the world of a rookie female cop. Lager obviously has a practically exhaustive knowledge of police equipment, organization and procedure, which gives the work a great deal of authority. Ro is a round, three-dimensional protagonist with a lot of depth to her development, and does exhibit some admirable, heroic qualities. (Frank is developed well too.) As his fascinating blog entries indicate, Lager has a mental picture of Ro’s entire life history from childhood on and a comprehensive understanding of all her characteristics as a person. He doesn’t feed us ALL that information here (the novel only covers the time beginning with her winning the Iowa state shooting championship in April 2003, shortly before joining the sheriff’s department, to September 2003, when she earns her “handle,” or nickname for radio identification purposes, and sort of becomes one of the guys -she’s currently the only female deputy). But we get a lot of it, including a thorough introduction to her family, a few glimpses of her childhood, her orientation week, her habits, life and dislikes, stuffed toy panda, etc. By the time this is over, we know her like a real person (and probably like her –I did, and do!)

This is not, of course, the stuff of high drama. Some readers will feel that the plotting and development of the story is way too slow-moving. The heavy accumulation of detail and description, including things like the menus for people’s breakfasts, description of Ro’s underwear, the specifics of what she and other characters are wearing, etc., contributes to that impression. Related to this, there tends to be a lack of meaningful conflict in the story-line until towards the end. (For instance, both Ro and Tracy Crosswhite are champion competitive shooters, and we see them both in competitive settings. But where Tracy is being scored on her pistol shooting in “The Academy,” it’s at the climactic moment of the tale, and the outcome is in doubt until the end, making for genuine suspense and tension. In Ro’s championship competition, on the other hand, I never really felt any element of suspense or tension, and her win is almost anti-climactic.) Only near the end is there a situation where Ro is in real danger and engaged in actual combat; only near the end is there any real sense of possible conflicts in her relationships with other deputies, and only near the end is there any real question about the nature of her relationship with Frank. Most of the story is pretty much a matter of day-to-day life (with the exception of starting a dating relationship). As might be expected from a college speech teacher, Lager’s technical mastery of prose style is quite professional; there are just a very few places where minor editing would have helped.

For me, this book was difficult to rate, because there are aspects I really like and aspects that I really dislike. I didn’t mind the slow-paced build-up quite as much as some readers probably will, because I was interested in learning about Ro and what makes her tick, and about the workings of a modern sheriff’s department (I learned much that I didn’t previously know, and I think most readers would). IMO, the action scene was good, the handling of the psychological aspects of the aftermath struck me as true to life, and the ending worked very well for me. The Ro-Frank aspect of the plot ultimately proved to be a major liability in my estimation, which dragged down the rating. If the book were written with no “romantic” element at all, just as a straight police-life and action story, I’d probably have given it five stars. As it was, the romantic-erotic parts earned one star. Overall, I decided to split the difference and give the book three, since I liked much of it. (And yes, I will read the sequel!)

I was gifted by the author with a review copy of this book, but no guarantees that I’d like it were offered or expected. Nor did World Castle Publishing (which also publishes my novel) put any pressure on me to write a favorable review (and I would have canceled my contract with them if they had!).

Note: This novel has only one explicit sex scene, but it occupies a very prominent position in the strictly-linear story arc, and it’s extremely, graphically detailed, with a “you are THERE!” immediacy. There is a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, religious profanity, the c-word to describe part of the female anatomy, etc. (Some, though not all, of this reflects real-life cop culture.)

Author: Dave Lager
Publisher: World Castle Publishing, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

A Demon Bound, by Debra Dunbar

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

While the cover image is certainly striking, I should mention that it is inaccurate in one significant point. At no point do I recall the heroine ever wielding a gun. While such false advertising would normally be a sore point, in this particular case, we’ll give them a pass – since the reason she doesn’t, is because she is simply too bad-ass to need one. For Samantha Martin is an imp: a demon who has chosen to spend a chunk of her substantial life-span (measured in centuries) among us mortals, rather than in the underworld. Why? Largely because it’s more fun up here.

Who needs guns, when like Sam, you possess a broad range of powers, including regeneration, transformation and the ability to manipulate energy? However, she has to be very, very careful about their use, because her kind is not supposed to be prowling the Earth at all. To prevent this, angels are continually monitoring for signs that indicate demonic abilities, and enforce the prohibition with extreme prejudice. A large, glowing sword may be involved. So, Samantha keeps her talents in check and manages her property business, or hangs out by the pool, generally keeping a low profile.

Things are rudely interrupted, however, when her hellhound returns home, much the worse for wear. Turns out he had got into a fight with a werewolf living on a nearby farm, whom Sam ends up having to kill. The local lycanthropes are not happy about this, and demand a service from her as reparation. Turns out a rogue angel, Althean, has been carrying out a one-man program of genocide against the werewolves, and they need someone to stop him. Unfortunately, Sam’s efforts bring her to the attention of Gregory, the angels’ chief enforcer on Earth, who is also on Althean’s trail – but is none too happy to discover Sam’s presence.

This was a tremendous amount of fun to read, mostly because of the heroine, who is unorthodox, to put it mildly. Foul-mouthed and unrepentantly immoral, Sam is a big fan of both sex and violence, largely bemused by human notions such as loyalty and affection, and treats our species as an amusing plaything, put on Earth for her enjoyment. Yet, over the course of the book, it appears there’s more to her than this. The fact she prefers Earth to Hell is just one of the various hidden depths which emerge, and we get to learn about the back-story of this struggle – not least that the angels and demons are not as far apart as either might prefer to think.

While Sam is clearly the book’s core, with it all being told from her first-person perspective, I also enjoyed Gregory and his conflicts. He has issues of his own, with some among his kind endorsing Althean’s murderous mission, as they believe werewolves to be Nephilim, the offspring of angels with humans, and deserving of extermination. It’s all surprisingly complicated, and I’m highly curious as to where the series goes. Credit Dunbar too, for telling a complete and well-rounded story here, albeit with an epilogue to leave the reader intrigued.

This is comfortably R-rated, since Sam has absolutely no problem with using violence, though most of it is against other supernatural entities. Not out of any moral scruples, however, just because we humans aren’t worth the effort! I’d love to see this made into a movie, though given her fondness for nudity – partly for practical reasons resulting from energy transmutation, partly to wind up the more prudish members of society – it would require a particularly broad-minded leading lady. In the meantime, I’ll certainly be investing in further installments of the Imp Series, of which this is the first volume.

Author: Debra Dunbar
Publisher: Inked Entertainment, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Policewoman, by Justin W. M. Roberts

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

“…courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

Debut author Justin W. M. Roberts and I became acquainted recently in the Action Heroine Fans group that I help moderate on Goodreads. I noticed his mentions of this novel there, and was interested enough to accept his generous offer of a hardcover review copy; but no guarantee of a good review (or a review at all) was asked or expected. This book had no trouble earning its stars on its merits! For much of the time while I was reading it, I expected to give it four and a half stars, but after the impact of the ending, there’s no way I could give it any less than five.

“Write about what you know” is an axiom Roberts clearly takes seriously. British born (and a graduate of Hull Univ.), his father was an army general, and the future author seems to have been what’s sometimes called in U.S. slang an “army brat,” who grew up in close proximity to military bases and traveling around the world to different postings. For the past 25 years, he’s made his home in Indonesia; this book is set partly there and in the British Isles, and like the author, his titular heroine straddles the two cultures.

He also appears to have a background in police and/or military counter-terrorist services. His knowledge of S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) terms and procedures, firearms specs, and both British and Indonesian police and military organization and organizational culture and traditions is extensive, to put it mildly, and he puts this to use in spades throughout the book. It’s noted at the beginning of the book that almost all of these tactics are “intentionally disguised” to protect police and military officers (so that baddies can’t use the book as a text to learn what to expect!), but it still has a very realistic feel. We’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff here; readers who need and want technical accuracy won’t be disappointed. For other readers like me, who don’t know one brand of firearm from another and have little technical knowledge of covert operations, much of this information will go over our heads, but it will still give a feeling of verisimilitude, and maybe impart some knowledge that will stick! (Seven and a half pages of glossaries of organizational “alphabet soup” and British, Indonesian and Irish military/police slang and terms and Gaelic –here spelled “Gaeilge”– phrases are provided; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll refer to them frequently.)

To write a gripping tale of action adventure, of course, one needs more than technical knowledge. Such a story requires a fundamental, high-stakes conflict with moral issues that matter, involving believable characters that the reader can actually care about. Roberts delivers that here, too. His story is set in 2026, in order to allow for the full effects of planned downsizing of the British army, scheduled to be fully effected in 2020, and for the related rise of a new player in international drug trafficking, the Irish Drug Cartel. The book opens with a grisly and highly attention-grabbing torture scene that (once the reader interprets it in the light of the information that follows in the first chapters) establishes the moral polarities very clearly.

Heroine Sarah –half Indonesian, half European, from a military family, and raised partly in England– still in her 20s, is a high-ranking and very capable officer in the paramilitary wing of the Indonesian National Police. She’s seconded early on to Interpol and sent to England to join the task force battling the Cartel. It’s no exaggeration to say she’s one of the best, and best-drawn, action heroines I’ve encountered in fiction. The other important characters are also vividly realized –Niall, the Cartel’s pet psychopath and torturer, is as radically evil a figure as you’ll ever encounter in a book. (There are so many secondary ones that some of their names and sometimes organizational affiliations are hard to keep track of, but you don’t actually have to –in those cases, I just sort of went with the flow. :-) )

There’s a lot of action, but significant character development and interaction as well. (Some readers found the first four chapters slow-paced or even boring, because of the introductions and setting up of the situation, but I honestly did not; I thought Roberts did a good job of holding interest there.) While I’ve classified this as action-adventure rather than mystery, the author effectively uses some techniques of mystery fiction in places to hide clues in plain sight. Some parts of this book are profoundly moving, and it packs a very real emotional wallop. The narration is in third-person, present tense mode; this took some getting used to, but I actually adjusted to it pretty quickly. A quibble might be that some Cartel members are more loose-lipped and careless than would probably be the case in real life, but that is a minor quibble.

Roberts’ online author profile notes that he’s “an active promoter of secular humanism.” This particular book, however, doesn’t grind any sort of philosophical ax. If it has any messages, they would be recognition that drug use and drug trafficking is a pestilent scourge on the world, and high admiration and respect for the often-maligned work of the brave men and women of the police and military who put their lives on the line to stand against it. (Interestingly, Sarah is a professed Catholic, and that aspect of her character is treated respectfully. Granted, it’s clear that her religious beliefs, as far as they go, are more a matter of birthright church membership than a life-transforming personal spiritual commitment –but she does tangibly demonstrate that they go further than just empty words.)

Some content warnings are needed here. I mentioned an opening torture scene. There are some other torture scenes here as well, all of them graphic, and the violence is grim and bloody, with a lot of messy deaths. The author would say the violent content isn’t any more graphic than it has to be, and (unlike Niall), he clearly doesn’t take pleasure in it; but this isn’t a read for the squeamish. While there’s not much bad language in the first three or so chapters, there gets to be a lot of it later, with quite a bit of use of the f-word. This does reflect English-speaking cop and military sub-culture, as well as the speech of low-life thugs, and also, to a degree, contemporary secular British speech (which apparently has coarsened even more than American speech in recent decades). While there’s some unmarried sex here, the sex between the good characters is loving and not really explicit; but there’s a lot of locker-room–style sexual banter that’s R (or X)-rated. Some female readers might also feel that the book suffers some from the “male gaze” syndrome, especially in the references to a photo of Sarah in a bikini.

In summary, I’d recommend this novel for action fans generally, not just for those who particularly like action heroines (though many of the latter will agree that Sarah’s “the ultimate action heroine!”). The content issues, IMO, don’t detract from its very real merits (and might not bother many readers at all); and the author deserves particular credit for bringing to life an admirable heroine of mixed race, a demographic that gets way too little representation in English-language action fiction.

Author: Justin W. M. Roberts
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Vendetta, by Jack McSporran

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

Let’s start with a grumble. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of full books – or even collections of multiple books – I’ve picked up for $2.99 or less. Maybe that’s why I can’t help feeling gypped when a book lasts only about an hour. The official page count on Amazon says 182 pages. But this figure doesn’t take into account that a significant chunk is actually the first few chapters of Kill Order, the first “full” novel about British government agent, Maggie Black – available separately for another $4.99! If I’d realized this was only 133 pages of actual story, I’d probably not have fast-tracked this. I was then further disgruntled to discover that the “Maggie Black Starter Library” includes both books at the same $4.99 price. Sadly, let the buyer beware. Is it too late to get a refund for this? Consider this volume docked a star of literary rating as a result.

It’s a bit of a shame, since what there is, isn’t too bad. Maggie Black is an agent of “The Unit”, an entirely off-the-grid intelligence agency of the British government, specializing in dirty work. She was recruited by her boss, Bishop, Nikita-style – whisked out of jail, after deciding his offer of employment was preferable to a lengthy prison sentence – and trained in all necessary skills. Her mission in this slim volume, is to go to Venice and disrupt an impending agreement between Carlo Rossi, an international drug trafficker, and Peter West, a British dealer looking for a supplier. To this end, she adopts the persona of “Rebecca Sterling”, a brash American also seeking a source of cocaine and heroin.

The task becomes a great deal more complicated after Carlo is assassinated during their first meeting, with Rebecca suspected of being involved in the murder. Fortunately, she has help, in the form of Leon, another Unit agent, playing the part of Rebecca’s bodyguard, as well as Isabella, an Italian undercover agent who had worked her way into a position as the late Carlo’s PA. This leads to three particular set-pieces: a chase across the Venetian roof-tops; an escape from a near-death situation; and a battle in a cemetery which turns into a lengthy battle and pursuit around the canals of the city, with an explosive finale.

McSporran (a pseudonym adopted by a children’s author – as a fellow Scot, I can’t figure out whether I’m amused or offended!) has a good handle on his location, capturing the atmosphere of Venice. The action, too, is quite well done, crisply and clearly handled. The main problem is the plotting, which runs the gamut from obvious to eye-rolling. One paragraph after Leon showed up, I could tell he and Maggie would end up in one of “those” relationships. The villains, too, do the evil overlord thing, such as chatting merrily away with their captives before deciding a quick death is too good for them [if ever I become an evil overlord, I will ensure any prisoners are checked for knives before being tied to a post below the high-tide mark…] There’s also a bomb which shows up out of nowhere, having not been mentioned at all before it goes off.

It is a solid enough set-up, with effectively infinite scope for development down the road, and I did like the lead character. However, the weaknesses in the story-line, combined with the bad aftertaste left by the quantity of content here, are enough to push any further installments quite some distance back down my literary waiting-list.

Author: Jack McSporran
Publisher: Inked Entertainment, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Sorcery and Science, by Ella Summers

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The blurb for this one reads, “Terra Cross is just your typical paranormal princess. She plays poker with goblins and leprechauns. She savors her morning muffin from the Pacific Sunrise Bakery in suburban California. She solves galactic crime cases. And on a particularly wild day, she can even see into the future.” It is somewhat inaccurate, at least as far as this novel goes. I don’t recall any poker at all, muffins appear once, and as for the crime-solving… Well, sorta but not really. There is, however, likely good reason, since the novel is a prequel to Summers’s “Sorcery and Science” series, in which I presume Terra does more of the above.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It allows this book to stand on its own: you reach the end, and there’s a fairly well-defined line drawn beneath the fates of most characters. On the other hand, it does require a clunky jump in the epilogue to tie into the body of the series. Not much more than, “we moved to the other end of the galaxy and started a private-eye business.” Wait, what? It almost works better if you skip that, and treat it as the first volume in its own, standalone series. The paranormal princess aspect makes more sense this way, in a universe where advanced technology and magic co-exist, and Earth is being carefully blocked from knowledge of both. Vampires, witches, elves, etc. all have their own realms, making varying use of the “sorcery and science” from the title.

Cross is the daughter of the mage’s king, but likes to sneak off on adventures with her best friend and mage enforcer, Jason. However, they bite off more than they can chew when chasing after a renegade scientist-wizard, Vib. He is creating an advanced breed of super-mages, with multiple, shared talents instead of the standard limit of one type of magic per person. Needless to say, this research – despite being way beyond the pale – is of great interest to the competing races. Terra and Jason find themselves not just fending off Vib’s creations; they also becomes pawns in the political battle for dominance between the various forces that seek to control the galaxy.

I generally enjoyed this, once I got past Summers’s fondness for prose which tends toward the over-descriptive, it seems especially when it comes to colours, for some reason. The world she crafts is quite an interesting one, and the techno-pagan blend of SF and fantasy is intriguing. While Jason is the more action-minded of the duo, Terra becomes more active later on, especially after taking one of Vib’s experimental concoctions, out of desperation. It allows her to use some of Jason’s talents, which are significant;y more combat-oriented than her precognitive ones. 

The sudden right turn at the end, to tie it into the main body of the series, leaves me uncertain whether I would want to continue, since it appears potentially rather different in tone. Not least, I get the horrible feeling there’s going to be one of “those” love triangles, putting the heroine between Jason and the dark, brooding vampire commander she encounters. Fortunately, that was only hinted at in the prequel, and what’s here was, overall, pleasant enough.

Author: Ella Summers
Publisher: Currently only available as part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Confessions of a Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman by J.B. Lynn

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I guess there is at least something logical about this, in how its heroine, Maggie Lee, becomes the assassin of the title. She takes on her first contract to pay the medical bills of her niece, left in a coma after a car accident which killed her parents and injured Maggie. That’s the kind of motivation which I can see, causing a person to take desperate steps. Unfortunately, it’s a rare island in a sea of largely implausible plotting and uninteresting characters.

First is how she comes to the attention of the mob: visiting her niece, she stumbles across a man assaulting another patient and fights him off. Turns out the patient is the head of the Delveccio crime family, who decides to hire Maggie to whack the assailant, his son-in-law. Quite why he prefers to entrust this to an insurance call-centre employee, when he clearly has far more experienced and capable personnel to hand, is never explained. Nor his decision to entrust Maggie with a minder, somewhat bent cop Patrick Mulligan, who trains her in the finer arts of killing. And I mean that sarcastically, since he has to explain that rule number one is, “Don’t get caught.” Really.

Then there’s the other cop, Paul Kowalski, who pulls Maggie over to give her a traffic ticket, which ends up with him asking her on a date. I’m not sure what purpose he serves in this store, except to set up the inevitable love triangle between him, Maggie and Patrick. Oh, and did I mention that Maggie can converse with animals, including her niece’s pet lizard? Why? Because her mother is in the loony bin, I guess: either that, or perhaps this talent was triggered by the accident. It’s such an incongruous element, in a series which is trying to remain relatively grounded in reality, it appears to have strayed in from another book entirely. I was also unimpressed with Maggie’s family, who are annoying more than endearing and whose drama occupy reams of pages, to the point that I wondered if Lynn was being paid by the word.

Once she has got through her first mission, turns out that’s far from the end of it, as Delveccio’s regular hit-man takes credit for the job, and Maggie has to get rid of him as well, in order to collect her fee. This is about the only sequence which managed to stick in my mind, bringing home effectively the point that killing someone can be difficult and unpleasant, especially when it’s not just a case of squeezing a trigger. But I’ve got to be honest: this book took twice as long to get through as most I’ve reviewed here. For when I went to bed, and it was a choice between reading some more chapters and fluffy, pillow-shaped goodness… The lure of Morpheus was generally a lot greater than the lure of Maggie.

Author: J.B. Lynn
Publisher: Avon Impulse, available through Amazon as an e-book – used copies of the paperback are… kinda pricey. As in five hundred bucks!

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.