Review – Sparrow Hill Road

Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories No.1) – Seanan McGuire

DAW Books, 2014

Rose Marshall died in the summer of 1952 when her car was driven off Sparrow Hill Road, and that was only the beginning of her problems. Rose is a hitcher now, a ghost of the roads, and the rules that she doesn’t live by are as unforgiving as they are arcane. Over the years she has become a story – the Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown – and sometimes stories draw the wrong sort of attention. From rookie ghost-hunters to drivers on their last hope, her fellow unquiet dead to the vengeful living, Rose has more to fear now than she ever did when she was alive. Worst of all is the man who killed her that night on Sparrow Hill Road. Given the chance, he is going to finish the job, and there are much worse things than death.

Sparrow Hill Road is written as if it was once a collection of ghost stories, a bit non-linear, which conveys Rose’s experience of the world incredibly well. I loved it. The layered mythology, from modern American ghost stories all the way down to Hades and Persephone, creates a complete and fascinating world, and Rose, with her good heart and bad attitude, is a marvelously flawed protagonist. I’m very much looking forward to reading more in this series.

Review – Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy – Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman

Walker Books Ltd., 2016

Simon Lewis is a hero. Or so he has been informed. He can’t actually remember his heroics thanks to an encounter with a demon and a sacrifice that saved the lives of friends who are now strangers to him. But Simon has a way to get it all back. In the wake of a devastating war, the Nephilim are recruiting ordinary people to join their ranks, who will be trained at the newly re-opened Shadowhunter Academy and – should they prove worthy – will drink from the Mortal Cup to take on the strength of the Angel’s warriors. Simon wants to be a hero again. More than that, he wants to work out who he really is. He hopes that his time at the Academy will give him a chance at both those things, and maybe even understand what the hell the blazing, famous Isabelle Lightwood ever saw in him. All he has to do is survive training with a group of ferociously competitive would-be demon-killers…and then there’s the demons themselves.

This is a book for established fans of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter series only. It is a collection of short stories centred around Simon Lewis, a character from the Mortal Instruments series, though other characters from the Shadowhunter books do show up. The short stories were originally published as standalone e-books, in the same style as The Bane Chronicles, which means there’s a bit of repetition when you’re reading them all together. I wasn’t always very interested in the Academy plots but most of the stories had other layers to them, weaving in parts of Shadowhunter history, and having read all the previous books, I was delighted to see backstories filled in and favourite characters return. The story I enjoyed most was ‘Born to Endless Night’ just for the Lightwood family shenanigans, but there’s a lot to love here for Shadowhunter fans.

Review – Discount Armageddon

Discount Armageddon (InCryptid No.1) – Seanan McGuire

Corsair, 2012

Valerie Pryor is on track for a career in the glittering, gruelling world of ballroom dancing. A well-known face on the competitive circuit and a runner-up in the nation’s most popular dance show, she’s making all the right moves. Unfortunately for Valerie, she doesn’t exist. Inventing an alternate identity is a necessary compromise for Verity Price if she’s to have a hope of chasing her dream. As a daughter of the notorious monster-studying, dimension-hopping, knife-wielding Price family, not only does her daily life contain more shapeshifters, telepaths and bogeymen than your average twenty-something, but there’s also a risk that the far more ruthless and better resourced Covenant of St. George will sweep into town to purge all things paranormal. When cryptid girls start going missing in New York, it is Verity’s responsibility to investigate. Mysterious disappearances, rooftop ambushes and making her debut in the local tango scene – it’s all in a night’s work for a Price girl.

This is fun, fast-paced urban fantasy led by a protagonist who is equally interested in daggers as the Argentine tango. Verity is refreshingly sure of her strength (which does not come and go as suits the presence of her love interest) and her world contains a wide variety of cryptid species that goes much further that the usual werewolves and vampires. I was particularly delighted by the dragon princesses, it’s such an inventive take on a classic fairy tale trope. The series continues with Midnight Blue Light Special.

Review – The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle No.4) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2016

Gansey has spent half his life searching for the legendary king Glendower. Together with his friends, he is closer than he’s ever been to achieving his quest – but another power has already woken in Henrietta, reaching for Adam through the ley line and infecting Ronan’s dreams. Noah’s ghost is disintegrating. Blue’s home is under attack. And Cabeswater is dying. If they want to save it, and each other, they need magic that is stronger than a demon…and to survive long enough to use it.

This is the fourth, final and in my opinion, the best, of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. Every character arc is given space and depth, and the newer characters fitted in seamlessly. Laumonier was brilliantly creepy. I found the resolution for Glendower somewhat dissatisfying and was more interested in some plot threads than others, but they were woven together well and the writing is beautiful. The series began with The Raven Boys and continued with The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Review – Tam Lin

Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

Firebird, 2006

Originally published in 1991

The day she arrives at Blackstock College for her freshman year, Janet is told that her room is haunted, but really she’s more concerned about the roommates that are very much alive. There is enough oddness on campus, from Janet’s enigmatic advisor Melinda Wolfe to the quietly domineering presence of Professor Medeous, to Janet’s melodious but entirely unreliable classmate Nick and his theatrical friends, without bringing ghosts into it. The strangest things, however, do not always announce themselves so obligingly. They creep up on you unawares, or linger at the corner of your eye. And Janet is not entirely willing to look.

This retelling of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, set in the 1970s in an American university, is immensely readable and given my current blog project, very relevant to my interests. It’s a book infused with literary references, some more obscure than others, and Dean conjures a dreamy sense of mystery throughout. That said, I would have liked a clearer pay-off for all those hints, drawing in a greater number of the intriguing side characters, and I wanted to see more of Thomas Lane, as he spends rather too much of the book being quiet or absent. Janet is excellent. She’s delightfully pragmatic and very stubborn. My Firebird edition also includes the original ballad at the back, which is a lovely touch.

Review – The Good, the Bad and the Undead

The Good, the Bad and the Undead (The Hollows No.2) – Kim Harrison

HarperVoyager, 2006

Originally published in 2005

Everyone likes the idea of an independent ‘runner’ taking down Inderlanders who break the law, but paying one is another matter. Having barely survived the exit from her last job, Rachel Morgan is struggling to make a living from her new one. When she’s brought in as a consultant on the notorious ‘witch hunter’ murder case, it’s exactly the break she needs, particularly since she has a strong theory in mind. But there are a few things she’s failed to take into account. Her messy history with councilman Trent Kalamack. Her moody partner and housemate Ivy’s connections to the city’s vampire underworld. And how Rachel fits the murderer’s profile to a T…

I had a few minor reservations about the first Hollows novel, Dead Witch Walking, but overall enjoyed it very much and was looking forward to reading this one. Unfortunately, it disappointed me badly. There were multiple gaping plot holes that made Rachel look anything but competent, and her relationship with Ivy – integral to my enjoyment of the first book – suffered so much damage that, while Harrison could clearly move past it, I certainly could not. I’ll explain that in more detail under the spoilers tag. The world Harrison created is an interesting one and there’s a lot to like about the central characters, but this was much too frustrating for me to continue with the series.

Spoilers: (Trigger warning for references to rape) The scene in which Ivy pressures Rachel to become her ‘scion’ (a position somewhere between servant and lover, there to provide their vampire master with blood) is written as a sexual assault – Ivy taking advantage of her superior physical strength to manhandle Rachel, using the scar from a demonic injury to further distort Rachel’s ability to give informed consent, ignoring all of Rachel’s boundaries and pleas for her to stop – but nobody within the narrative treats the incident as a serious violation and Rachel consistently blames herself for it happening at all. This is classic victim-blaming, which makes it all the more bizarre when Ivy later suffers a similar experience and Rachel calls it rape – because while that’s undoubtedly what it is, how is it possible for the two events to receive such different treatment? Just because Ivy’s attacker got what he wanted from the encounter and Ivy did not get what she wanted from Rachel does not make the attempt any more acceptable. And neither incident is acceptable in the slightest.

Review – Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows No.1) – Kim Harrison

Eos, 2004

When a genetically engineered virus kills off a quarter of the human race, the truth comes out: humanity is only the tip of the iceberg. Now everything that once lived in the shadows, from pixies to witches to vampires, is out in the open and that means a brave new world of bureaucracy. Rachel Morgan is a witch and an IS runner, tasked with apprehending the ‘Inderlanders’ who break the law. Unpopular with her boss, she’s hit a career dead end and decides to go freelance. The only problem with that is, IS runners who leave the department tend to meet literal dead ends. She’ll need a lot of leverage, and even more luck, just to make it through the week – and that’s if her terrifying new housemate doesn’t get her first.

This is the kind of fast-paced, sarcastic urban fantasy that I like. Rachel’s chaotic yet capable style made her a fun protagonist and the dysfunctional family vibe she developed with her housemates was a delight. The world-building was engaging and nuanced, even though the writing was occasionally clunky (‘Oriental’, for instance, is not a good word for describing a person’s looks). Being the first in the Hollows series, Dead Witch Walking sets more plot points up than it resolves, but it’s an interesting set-up. The story continues with The Good, the Bad and the Undead.

Review – Lady Midnight

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices No.1) – Cassandra Clare

Simon & Schuster, 2016

Emma Carstairs was born into a world of monsters, and she has spent most of her life killing them. As a Shadowhunter, it is her duty to protect mundane society from demons, rogue vampires and werewolves, the malice of Faerie and every other danger that the rest of humanity doesn’t believe exists. It is not an easy life. Her parents were both murdered five years ago and Emma is willing to move heaven and earth to find who – or what – was responsible. When an opportunity comes her way not only to get answers, but also to help protect her best friend Julian’s family, Emma leaps at it. There is something ugly hidden at the heart of Los Angeles. And Emma is not the only one looking for revenge.

This is not so much the beginning of a series as a good jumping on point for anyone interested in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books. She introduced her world in City of Bones, the first book in the Mortal Instruments sextet, and fleshed it out further in the prequel trilogy The Infernal Devices (opening with Clockwork Angel). There are spoilers for both previous sets of books in Lady Midnight and it will mean more if you’re familiar with the older characters – having read all the previous books, it was particularly interesting for me to see the effects of choices made in the last one – but The Dark Artifices has a fresh cast in a new location.

Emma is a dynamic protagonist and the domestic realities of her day-to-day life with the Blackthorns added welcome depth. I am a sucker for stories about sprawling families and ones that focus on the relationships between siblings, so I particularly liked that aspect Lady Midnight. The support cast contains characters who are LGBT, POC and neurodiverse, and there are several gender tropes that get firmly flipped. I am not a huge fan of ‘forbidden love’ romances, so I didn’t enjoy that part of the plot as much, but I do like all the characters involved in Lady Midnight’s romantic tangles. The Dark Artifices continues with Lord of Shadows, slated for release in April 2017.

Review – The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet (Shades of London No.3) – Maureen Johnson

Hot Key Books, 2015

The rules have changed. Since she arrived in London, Rory Devereaux has been hunted by homicidal ghosts, infused with a power she doesn’t understand, joined a secret paranormal police force and fallen for a boy who just died to save her. But he’s not exactly gone. If she is ever going to see him again, she has to stay in London – but with the leader of a dangerous cult determined to find her and her own disappearance causing waves among those who love her most, no decision looks like the right one. Wherever she goes from here, she’s off the map.

These are fairly dark books, despite the strong thread of humour running through – I mean, this one opens with a mass murder – and Rory as a character feels increasingly out of her depth. Her bonds with the other characters are getting strained, which is part of what made the introduction of Freddie abrupt and a bit unconvincing to me. I’d have preferred to see more of Boo and Callum, who were not as visible in this installment. The new villains, however, are very promising. The Shades of London series will continue with a fourth novel, but the title and date of publication have not yet been released.

Review – The Killing Dance

The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter No.6) – Laurell K. Hamilton

Orbit, 2007

First published in 1997

Anita Blake is used to death. It’s a given when your job is raising zombies. Dating an alpha werewolf and a master vampire at the same time, friends with a hitman and the owner of a deserved reputation for bloody victories, Anita does not expect a quiet life any more, but it’s hard not take it personally when someone hires an assassin to bring her down. Putting her life on the line for the monsters has put her in the firing line yet again – now it’s time for the monsters to return the favour.

If you have not read any of the previous Anita Blake books, be aware there are spoilers for them in this review.

I genuinely like Anita. She’s intensely capable with an iron-clad sense of independence and razor-sharp gallows humour, and I adored every scene she shared with Edward. Her romantic interests, however, tested my patience too far. Richard gets a little more personality in this book  but I don’t like really anything about him, and I’ve loathed Jean-Claude since the first moment he appeared on the page. Both repeatedly seek to dominate Anita, and even though they don’t succeed, her relationships with them are anything but healthy. It says a lot when the hitman nicknamed Death for his ruthless efficiency takes better care of her emotional and physical wellbeing than the men who supposedly love her. For this reason, I probably won’t be continuing with this series any longer.