Review of Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

September 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Clean Sweep by Ilona AndrewsClean Sweep
By Ilona Andrews; Narrated by Renee Raudman
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 8 hours

Themes: / urban fantasy / Texas / magic / bed and breakfast / werewolves / vampires /

Publisher summary:

On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast.

But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina. And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….

Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything.

Clean Sweep is an urban fantasy-type book with some interesting twists. Unfortunately, the narrator of the audiobook had a voice that didn’t fit the character and was so out of place that it made the book very difficult to listen to.

Dina is an innkeeper, a woman who runs a B&B in Texas. Her inn has magical properties and she has magical capabilities, her role being that of a neutral protector in a version of Earth/USA that includes normal humans but also has vampires, werewolves, and other magical beasts. The main thrust of the story is that Dina’s inn becomes the site for a showdown between two sides in a big family disagreement, though the book was more than halfway through before any of this became evident. The first half (or slightly more) of the book was world building and character introduction more than it was purely essential to the plot.

In Clean Sweep, Ilona Andrews has some interesting ideas about magic. I think I might be persuaded to read another book set in this world/series, assuming it was quicker to get to the point/didn’t do as much world-building, and assuming that I read it, not listened to it (or that the narrator was someone else). In Ms. Andrews’ world, the magical entities are by and large aliens from other worlds who find themselves on earth for a variety of reasons. What appears to be magic to “normal” people is actually uber nanotechnology or other futuristic technologies at work from alien worlds. There are many aggressive entities, such as the werewolves and vampires, but there are also places like the Inns, the Switzerland’s of the magical world. Innkeepers are to take no sides and to protect whoever signs the contract and pays to be a guest at the inn.

All of this goes awry when some creatures known as stalkers start killing dogs in the town where Dina’s inn is. At first, she believes that a local werewolf named Sean is to blame, but after killing two (with the help of Sean) and studying them, she comes to find out that these creatures may have been hired by vampires as part of a massive (and deadly) family feud. The world-building is mainly done by Dina explaining how the “magic” came to be to Sean, who knows nothing of the history of his species’ home planet or how his species came to earth. Through these explanations and through Dina’s preparations to help protect the vampires who are staying at the inn, the reader learns about other worlds, wormholes, and the true source of “magic.”

The book also has a side plot that was touched briefly upon, a story of Dina’s parents’ inn vanishing one day. Dina does a bit through the course of the narrative to try to find them, but it seems fairly obvious that it’s a side thread to be explored in later books/as a series arc. While most of the book is purely urban fantasy, there are also some hot and steamy scenes that are typically found in romance novels. Many urban fantasy books these days seem to have these scenes, whether they add to the story or not (in this case, not). There is also a possible threat, the local police officer thinking Dina is up to no good, but that thread is unceremoniously dropped just before the main thread of the story picks up, about halfway through. It’s not clear if this topic will be revisited in later books or if it was just an editing miss.

Clean Sweep is a fairly typical, action-packed urban fantasy story. There aren’t any deeper themes or morals to be had from it, though the idea of magic as uber technology is kind of fun. The book, once the actual plot started, was pretty quick to go through and fairly simple/straight-forward. This isn’t a book that’s going to make you think, or require lots of focused reading time to enjoy.

The only major negative is with the audiobook specifically. Dina is supposed to be a 23 year old woman living in Texas. Unfortunately, she sounds like an old grandmother from the deep south. The voice and the description of the character just don’t align. The narrator’s voices for the men were surprisingly good, but her overall voice just sounded old and tired. In parts where there was a lot of action, she actually sounded even worse, over dramatizing her voice acting. I actually thought she was going to die a few times. It was downright uncomfortable and annoying to listen to, and I cannot recommend the audiobook. If another book in this series is released, I may give it a go in print/Kindle, but won’t be listening again unless the narrator changes.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

September 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Magician's LandThe Magician’s Land (The Magicians #3)
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 5 August 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 16 hours, 27 minutes

Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Meta Fiction / Alternate Worlds /

Publisher summary:

Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of grey magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica and the Netherlands, and buried secrets, and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcerous masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory – but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

This series gets better book by book. I liked the story of the first but didn’t like any of the characters. I liked the story of the second and the characters grew on me quite a bit. This third book to the trilogy is definitely my favorite of the three. The story is interesting and has some throwbacks to the previous installments, Grossman’s dry humor is completely on point, and the characters are the best of this trilogy yet. My favorite part is Grossman’s use of humor throughout the book and his breadth of imagination with the use of magic throughout the book. Grossman brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion that you should definitely experience if you’ve already read the first two books of the series.

If you’re even considering reading this book, I’m sure you’ve already read the first two (if not, I’ll wait here while you go take care of that). Quentin is left shut out from Fillory so what is he to do with himself? Surprisingly enough, he does NOT turn into the miserable wreck of a creature he became after graduating in the first book – thank goodness for that. Quentin seems to have grown quite a bit from his past adventures and finds more purpose in his life. It’s really cool to see him develop that way across the books.

Grossman adds a few other point of view characters in this novel and all were nice additions to Quentin’s typical somber tone. You get to find out what other members of the old gang are getting up to as Grossman approaches the climactic conclusion of the trilogy. I particularly like Plum, a brilliant student at Brakebills that also gets involved in the adventure. Those who read Dangerous Women will recognize part of her story from Grossman’s submission to the anthology.

Grossman’s writing comes off smooth and natural. His dry tone and humor stand out as in the first two books and the book was completely enjoyable. He makes references to other works of fiction and modern influences like Harry Potter without feeling forced or making the book feel like it will be dated. There are some points in the plot where things come together far too well by happenstance, but that doesn’t hurt the story too much if you don’t focus on it.

As for the audio side of things, Mark Bramhall continues to perform his role as narrator superbly in this book. He handles the tone of the book so well – executing the voices of characters with all the sarcasm or droll tone you’d expect from these characters. Such simple ways of saying the lines Grossman has written actually made me laugh out loud in some places (“Wands out Harry”). I will definitely be looking for other books narrated by Bramhall.

Posted by Tom Schreck

Review of Skin Game by Jim Butcher

June 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Skin Game by Jim ButcherSkin Game (Dresden Files #15)
By Jim Butcher; Performed by James MarstersPublisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 27 May 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 15 hours, 49 minutes

Themes: / Dresden Files / urban fantasy / parkour / magic / winter queen / mab / faerie /

Publisher summary:

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day….

Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful.

He doesn’t know the half of it….

Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains—led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone—to break into the highest-security vault in town so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

It’s a smash-and-grab job to recover the literal Holy Grail from the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world—which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character. Worse, Dresden suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he’s dead certain that Nicodemus has no intention of allowing any of his crew to survive the experience. Especially Harry.

Dresden’s always been tricky, but he’s going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess—assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance….

It’s been 18 months give or take since Cold Days came out and I’ve been in withdrawal. While not quite as good as that book, Jim Butcher once again shows why he’s the king of Urban Fantasy and one of the best fantasy writers out there.

I tried to hold myself over with an Iron Druid and a Libriomancer. They just didn’t do the trick. In fact, I’ve decided that apart from Dresden Files, Urban Fantasy just really isn’t for me. Nothing else compares. Not even close.

I barely made it halfway through the first track and I was already laughing out loud. I had to spend an extra ten minutes deciding which one-liner was best to use for my status update, and just opted for one of the shorter ones because I had already stayed up too late listening.

We see a return of the Nicodemus and Order of the Blackened Denarius. By far one of the best villains of the series, if not all of fantasy. I was yelling at my book and Jim Butcher a few times.  My only real complaint is that many of the questions and issues created by Cold Days go largely unanswered. It almost feels like things were put on hold for a side story. That said, the book once again combines great characters, great dialogue and great action in a way that makes it nearly impossible to put down. I always hate waiting between books, but I can’t help myself from spending every free minute reading until I finish. It’s just that good.

James Marsters once again makes this series a must listen. It’s not even the fact that he does voices for the characters that makes it great. It’s the WAY he does the voices. The emotion when Harry casts a spell. Or him actually yelling PARKOUR! instead of simply reading it. He may not be the voice I originally expected for Harry, but he sure is now.

Anyone who reads the first few books and wonders what all the fuss is about, or balks at having to read a few books before the series “gets really good” is just missing out. If for some reason you still haven’t caught up on this series after Cold Days, consider this another recommendation to get on it.

Maybe I’ll take up Parkour!

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. SchwartzGooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
By David J. Schwartz; Narrated by Janina Edwards
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 October 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours, 11 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / mystery / community college / magic / secret agents /

Publisher summary:

Meet the newest professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, Joy Wilkins. She may suffer from face blindness, but Joy can still recognize people by reading their auras — a skill that comes in particularly handy for her real work as an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs. Her mission: to discover the source of weaponized demons being trafficked through the quaint school on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to locate her predecessor, the school’s missing History of Magic professor. But just as her investigation gets under way, the brutal murder of Joy’s handler — and mentor — sets her on the trail of a secret society known as the Thirteenth Rib. With the clock ticking down to the next attack, Joy will have to find new allies and uncover ancient secrets if she’s going to have any chance of defeating a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (hereafter referred to as Gooseberry Bluff ) is a book that had a lot of good ideas, but suffered a bit on execution. I was originally attracted to it because it seemed like a cross of modern urban fantasy with mystery–and in many respects, it was just that. The issues I had with it are more about how it wrapped up the various plot lines, and what was left to the imagination.

The premise is simple: Joy Wilkins is the new professor of history at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (GBCCoM), but she’s also an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA). Joy’s job as an agent is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she has face blindness; luckily, she is very good at reading auras, so her disability isn’t the end of the world. Very few people (relatively speaking) are good at reading auras. She is assigned to GBCCoM ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of the previous history professor, Prof. Drake, and to investigate the source of demon trafficking within the school. There are some other side stories in the book, and some character- and world-development that is done through the course of the narrative.

The characters are rather interesting and varied. Schwartz emphasized diversity in his characters, something relatively few authors seem to feel comfortable with, and that’s to his credit. The characters–whether they’re the narrator (Joy, the face-blind African American woman who’s also an agent in the FBMA), Andy (the transgender assistant who is biologically a male but self-identifies and dresses as a female and prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns), the gay president of the college, the Indian FBMA case handler, or the (apparently stereotypical white male) FBMA case handler, to name a few–are all believable and deeply developed. On the one hand, it felt like Schwartz may have been trying “too hard” to be SO DIVERSE but on the other, the diversity and the character traits opened up by this diversity were well-handled; rarely did it seem like a character was diverse just to be diverse.

The world didn’t need much development in general, given that the book takes place in modern-day “Gooseberry Bluff, MN” (a city on the St. Croix river). The rules for the various types of magic weren’t particularly well-defined, but this book wasn’t as much about the magic as it was about the mystery, so that can be forgiven. When needed, such as when explaining the demon-summoning, the rules were at least internally consistent.

The biggest issue I had with the book is that it had a lot of plot lines, and they weren’t all wrapped up particularly well. In addition, perhaps because of all the parallel plot points, the wrap-up to the main story line felt rushed. Some of the plot lines were:
-The main plot line, Joy trying to solve the disappearance of her predecessor at the school and the demon-trafficking
-Related sub-plots of assassination attempts and trying to determine why Joy’s FBMA case manager is trying to keep her off the job
-The president of GBCCoM’s time away from the school
-A romantic relationship between two other professors at the school
-A student (Margaret) who is very strong, magically-speaking, but very novice
-Another professor at the GBCCoM trying to bring back her sister’s soul

In the end, the main plot line was wrapped up but the sub-plots weren’t particularly discussed. I was left thinking that the case manager is just a jerk (he was certainly painted that way), but a lot of time was devoted to him. The main plot line was wrapped up, though with a lot of things falling into place “at the right moment” or Joy “figuring it out” suddenly at the end. The other plot lines were not specifically wrapped up–in fact, one of them was left wide open (the last one I listed). It seems like Schwartz spent so much time doing the world-building, that by the time he needed to wrap up the story, it felt rushed. I wasn’t exactly sure how Joy connected the dots or what exactly happened.

The narration by Janina Edwards was pretty good. There were a few times when I had to back up my recording and re-listen to a few sentences, but I think that was more attributed to awkward phrasing or unusual words than the actual narration. When I closed my eyes, I could see a confident African American woman as Joy–I actually had the picture of my 7th grade reading teacher in my head (thank you, Mrs. Barrett!). If you’re one who likes to listen at greater than normal speed (1.25x, 1.5x, 2x), you might have a hard time–I did. But the book was short enough that I didn’t mind listening at 1 or 1.25x speed.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) else Schwartz does with this world. I would like to know how some of the other plot lines wrap up, and why Margaret seemed so “important” in this book. I would hope, though, that in future books, less time is spent on world-building and more time is spent telling the story evenly, so that it doesn’t need to end up rushed as this one did at the end.

Posted by terpkristin.

LibriVox: The Hollow Of The Three Hills by Nathaniel Hawthorne

March 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Online Audio 

SFFaudio Online Audio

The Hollow Of The Three Hills - illustration by Esteban Maroto

If you’re a fan of good narration, and creepy short stories about witches, check out Bob Neufeld’s reading of The Hollow Of The Three Hills by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He’s a veteran narrator, with good taste is stories, and a terrific voice.

There is an “excellent” and extensive German Wikipedia entry on The Hollow Of The Three Hills – sadly, an English Wikipedia entry does not even exist.

LibriVoxThe Hollow Of The Three Hills
By Nathaniel Hawthorne; Read by Bob Neufeld
1 |MP3| – Approx. 13 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: LibriVox.org
Published: 2012
First published in The Salem Gazette, November 12, 1830.

And here’s a |PDF|.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Geomancer by Ian Irvine

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

GeomancerGeomancer (Well of Echoes #1)
By Ian Irvine; Read by Grant Cartwright
Publisher: Bolinda Audio via Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: July 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 23 hours, 47 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / magic / crystals / visions / aliens /

Publisher summary:

Two hundred years after the Forbidding was broken, Santhenar is locked in war with the lyrinx – intelligent, winged predators who will do anything to gain their own world. Despite the development of battle clankers and mastery of the crystals that power them, humanity is losing. Tiaan, a lonely crystal worker in a clanker manufactory, is experimenting with an entirely new kind of crystal when she begins to have extraordinary visions.

The crystal has woken her latent talent for geomancy, the most powerful of all the Secret Arts – and the most perilous. Falsely accused of sabotage by her rival, Irisis, Tiaan flees for her life. Struggling to control her talent and hunted by the lyrinx, Tiaan follows her visions all the way to Tirthrax, greatest peak on all the Three Worlds, where a nightmare awaits her.

The start of this book was promising, but things went off the rails. Then, just as they seemed to be recovering, I found the end to be awful. I think my main problem this book is the characters and their dialogue. In part one of the book Mr. Irvine introduces us to several characters that I despised almost immediately. In part two he seems to be trying to elicit sympathy from the reader via self-pity from internal monologue and sympathetic back story. It might work for some readers, but not for me. At best instead of coming around to like the characters as complex and flawed, I find myself mostly indifferent about what might happen to them.

The main character is mostly likable, although some of her thoughts rubbed me the wrong way. I assume this is another attempt to give her depth through flaws instead of being a hero trope. Maybe my dislike of almost all the characters is just an inability for me to understand their society, but I doubt it. The most likable characters are minor ones who don’t seem to stick around very long. It’s really hard for me to enjoy a book when I don’t like the people I’m reading about.

The main story is interesting. The world is at war with much more powerful alien creatures. Humanity have built machines called clankers in order to be able to fight back, but they are still mostly outmatched. At first this seems more like sci-fi than fantasy, but the clankers are powered by crystals and there a mostly unexplained magical system based on them and their connection to power nodes around the world. So really it’s some sort of mix that has more of a fantasy feel than science fiction.

There are a lot of political and social issues that play into things. With so many young men dying in a seemingly endless war, everyone is expected to produce children to essentially provide the next generation of fodder. Anyone accused of a crime is sent to one of two places depending on their gender. Males are sent to the front lines where they will likely die in short order. Women are sent to “breeding factories” which are exactly what they sound like. Entirely too much time was spent on the breeding factories, and the notion of a society so desperate to survive they force women to sleep numerous partners in the hopes of producing the most helpful offspring as frequently as possible is downright horrifying to me.

This is apparently the second series of Mr. Irvine’s Three Worlds sequence. Having never read the first (The Mirror Quartet), I’m sure I’m missing some references to things from that series. My understanding is this is set hundreds of years later, and possibly on a different world. I never felt lost but it’s possible I would understand more about the crystals and their powers if I had read that series first.

Overall it wasn’t a very good book and it was not as well executed as I would have liked. I found myself cringing at some of the writing in places, especially the dialogue. The ending of the book really was really off-putting – it felt like a bad soap opera on television.

Grant Cartwright, the narrator, is the only bright spot of the book, and a large part of me being able to get through the worst parts. I’m not sure if he exclusively reads books targeted at an Australian audience, but if so that’s a shame. He does a good amount of voices for the various characters and his normal reading voice is clear and easy to understand. Some of his voices are grating, but I think that’s fitting for the characters he is portraying. Maybe this partnership between Bolinda and Random House will bring more of his work to North America. I’d like to see what he does with a better book.

Review by Rob Zak.

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