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 Indexing by Seanan McGuire

May 9, 2014 by · 3 Comments
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SFFaudio Review

Cover art for Indexing by Seanan McGuireIndexing
By Seanan McGuire; Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 4 March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours
Themes: / metafiction / urban fantasy / fairy tales

I’m usually opposed to quoting the synopsis in my reviews–it’s just fluffing my word count! But I’m not even going to try to explain the premise of Indexing myself, so this time I’ll let the synopsis do all the heavy lifting.

“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where fairy tale narratives become reality, often with disastrous results.

That’s where the ATI Management Bureau steps in, an organization tasked with protecting the world from fairy tales, even while most of their agents are struggling to keep their own fantastic archetypes from taking over their lives. When you’re dealing with storybook narratives in the real world, it doesn’t matter if you’re Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happily ever after.

Indexing is New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy where everything you thought you knew about fairy tales gets turned on its head.

As the author of both the October Day series and, under the pseudonym Mira Grant, the Newsflesh trilogy, Seanan McGuire is no stranger to writing urban fantasy. But, as you may have deduced from the blurb, Indexing is not your run-of-the-mill hot vampire-on-werewolf ménage-a-trois urban fantasy. Instead, it’s populated with fairy tales. Here be Pied Pipers, Frog Princes, and Mother Gooses (Geese?) in spades. In the moribund desertscape of urban fantasy, Indexing is a cool refreshing garden grown wild with novelties. McGuire’s writing is dynamic enough to play fair with both the here-and-now realities of an urban setting and the timeless terrible beauty of fairy tales. Like quicksilver, the tone can glide from spunky 21st-century dialogue riddled with F-bombs to an ethereal transcendence full of snow and moonlight.

The presence of stories come to life in the world of Indexing places it squarely in the realm of metafiction. In fact, the book takes its title from the very real Aarne-Thompson Index, a comprehensive listing of folktale types compiled in the early twentieth century. In the land of metafiction, Indexing has some pretty affluent neighbors, such as Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler and Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel. Unfortunately in this regard the book fails to measure up, like that rundown house you drive by on your street and mutter about how you wish the neighbors would cut their grass. The premise itself is intriguing in exactly the way that speculative fiction is supposed to be, but the underlying worldview is overly pessimistic. In this story, Narrative itself is a character, or at least a vital force, trying to impose itself onto our order of reality. According to the world of Indexing, this is almost always a very bad thing, something that needs to be stopped. The novel’s closing chapters bring to light some extenuating circumstances that lend this structure a modicum of feasibility, but the reader still comes away with the sense that our world is better off without fairy tales made manifest stalking our streets.

As I write this, it occurs to me that this bothers me so much because it’s at odds with why I read speculative fiction in the first place. I firmly believe that these stories really do make our world better, in a very tangible way. I’m not saying we should unleash every fictional character on the streets of New York–there would probably be utter chaos. But there would be hope too. There would be Aragorn, for example, and Optimus Prime, and–you get the idea. The influx of story into our own world, “mimetic incursions” as they’re called in Indexing, needn’t always be the harbingers of misery and ruin. In fact, I think I took personal offense at the book’s denigration of stories. And then, of course, there’s the added irony that we’re actually reading, or listening to, a story. Just what sorts of mimetic incursions will Indexing spawn, I wonder. Ahh, the joys of peeling the layers of metafiction, kind of like an onion, but pointier and more slippery.

To be clear, my criticism of the novel’s metafiction is purely ideological. Leaving those aside, McGuire tells a damn good story. The pacing ratchets up the suspense like a mystery novel, and the writing, as I said, is sturdy as a house made of bricks. (See what I did there? Three Litle Pigs reference? Okay, never mind, on with the review.) And even if the book’s metafiction elements are problematic, its exploration of storytelling does succeed on a psychological levee. Narrative psychology and therapy have become buzz words in the last twenty years, and on both individual and cultural levels  we do think of our lives, both individually and collectively, as stories. In that sense, the main characters of Indexing become archetypes for ways in which people deal with their stories, their past, their trauma, whichever psychobabble catch phrase you like. Some fight it, others embrace it, while still others have more of a story than they think they do. Like most good speculative fiction, Indexing succeeds because of its powerful characterization.

Mary Robinette Kowal, a weaver of fantastic tales in her own right, shines as Indexing‘s narrator. Her performance of Henrietta Marchen, a recovering Snow White through whose eyes we see most of the book’s events, is at once confident and vulnerable in perfect measure. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a female narrator quite reach the baritone depths that Kowal does when she voices the burly Andy Robinson. The only blemish in the performance is her portrayal of Sloan Winters, whose incurably foul mouth is already grating enough without eery sentence curling up at the end like a skunk’s tale. Perhaps Kowal is simply trying to instill in us, the listeners, the same distaste that Sloan’s teammates feel towards this Wicked Sister. But that’s the only cloud in the sky. The glamour of Kowal’s voice captures the capricious fairy-tale heart of Indexing.

In spite of my significant ideological qualms with the book, I thoroughly enjoyed McGuire’s foray into the world of fairy tales. There’s no indication that a sequel is in the works, which is a shame. I’d gladly spend more time with this world’s colorful characters and fairy tales, morose and morbid though they may be. And I would dearly love to learn that Narrative isn’t so bad after all.

Posted by Seth Wilson

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.

Review of Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Murder of Crows by Anne BishopMurder of Crows (The Others #2)
By Anne Bishop; Narrated by Alexandra Harris
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication date: 4 March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hrs and 13 mins

Themes: / urban fantasy / blood prophet / feathers / shape-shifting /

Publisher summary:

After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more. 

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murders of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders whether their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or of a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

The book was wonderful. I loved how the story expanded beyond Meg, Simon and the Courtyard. In this story we get to see a lot more of the world and are introduced to a plethora of new characters. The only sad thing about the expansion of the new world is I miss getting to read more about some of the characters we met in the last book like Jake and Winter. The plot for this story is fairly straight forward so with all the new introductions and new places it was easy for me to keep track. While the story expanded it did so by going deeper into the politics and relationships between humans and the others.

My favorite thing about Anne Bishop’s writing is her focus on relationships. It is fascinating to watch Meg and Simon figure out how to be friends. Simon is a wolf and he is unsure how long he wants to hold his human skin, he also worries that being human so much is changing him. Meanwhile Meg is a blood prophet who has never been able to make choices and with so much turmoil happening her need to cut is greater than ever not to mention she is finding it a challenge to not accidentally break her skin. Likewise there is the relationship between Simon and Monty, Monty struggles to understand the terra indigene’s outlook on things without alienating the humans. Then Monty has his own issues with his daughter which I hope gets resolved because it just breaks my heart. While I could go on and on the point here is how these character’s interact with each other just makes the story even better.

The narrator for the book was Alexandra Harris. She has quite the smooth voice and while I enjoyed listening to her narrate and perform the voices of female characters, I did not care for her work as voicing the male characters. She also read a bit slower than I would have liked and so I solved that by speeding it up on my ipod. In a perfect world she would be partnered with someone like James Marsters and for me this would have been the perfect audio book.

Posted by Dawn V.

Review of Flesh Circus by Lilith Saintcrow

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Flesh Circus by Lilith SaintcrowFlesh Circus (Jill Kismet #4)
By Lilith Saintcrow; Performed by Joyce Bean
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 7 discs; 9 hours

Themes: / circus / urban fantasy / voodoo / zombies / magic /

Publisher summary:

When circus performers start dying grotesquely, Jill Kismet has to find out why, or the entire city will become a carnival of horror. She also has to play the resident hellbreed power against the Cirque to keep them in line, and find out why ordinary people are needing exorcisms. And then there’s the murdered voodoo practitioners, and the zombies. Jill Kismet is about to find out that some games are played for keeps.

The descriptions in Flesh Circus were memorable and fun, and touched on all the senses. Characterizations really told a lot about each individual and gave information about both them and the narrator. She was really snarky, selling toughness without overdoing it. There was some repetition in the action scenes, with guns and bones popping frequently. The author employs a liberal use of adverbs, and the plot relies heavily on elements that must have been established in earlier books. I could still follow along, though. The magical details were the best part.

Joyce Bean as narrator was great. She had a husky, slightly rough voice with an understated delivery that let the words really shine. Her characterization of side characters was great, making it easy to keep track of who was speaking.

Posted by Sarah R.

Review of Deadly Sting by Jennifer Estep

January 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review
Deadly StingDeadly Sting (Elemental Assassin #8)
By Jennifer Estep, Read by Lauren Fortgang
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / urban fantasy / assassin / museums / magic /

Publisher summary:

Red is definitely my color. Good thing, because in my line of work, I end up wearing it a lot. Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me — Gin Blanco, aka the Spider — it’s just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I’m attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland’s fanciest art museum. But it’s just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis’s priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place. Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.

Our story starts out with Gin moping …she misses Owen and while she is trying to hide it. Her friends and family can feel her despair. Finn tries to shake things out a bit by manipulating her into attending an event where all of Mab Monroe’s treasures are being showcased…which is awesome because Gin has to get a dress! Finn and Eva also have an ulterior motive of getting Gin and Owen to talk.  Which does not go so well since Owen has a date and then there is a heist by a group of giants. The giants are banding together because they are sick of being body guards and being taken for granted so they are taking their place in the criminal empire…or so it would seem.

As I read this book I kept thinking of the movie Die Hard and in the end it works out, actually I think it more than worked out the book is a lot more fun than some of the others. I listened to it on audio and as always the narrator Lauren Fortgang does a great job bringing the story to life. It is funny I am not sure if they switched narrators that I would continue with the story. Anyway back to the book the story is very succinct and the plot has a good solid pace. This book could have easily been a novella but the plot was strong enough to keep me entertained throughout the entire book. This time around Gin actually felt more like an assassin, even though she was still bumbling around it made much more sense.  It was also nice to see Gin getting mixed up in something where it was not about someone trying to kill her for revenge or an elemental trying to collect power. While she does not get any new powers in this book she seemed to use her stone and ice magic with a lot more finesse. It was also wonderful to see how she choose to deal with Jonah he has been a burr on her butt for a long time.

While I enjoyed the plot of this story I did not care for the lack of growth in the characters. At the end of Widow’s Web one could understand how and why Owen was mixed up and confused. After certain events in this book he should have been crystal clear and even at the end there was a lack of resolution. Add to that Gin still has a need to shoulder everything emotional on her own shoulders almost to the point where it does not make sense. Speaking of things that don’t make sense is Gin can freeze and object and make it animate to a degree so why can’t she just freeze people? The water villain in the last story did it was water so why not ice??

While the lack of character growth was disappointing I did enjoy the overall story. It looks like we have a new nemesis on the scene bringing about a new story arch which could be interesting.

Posted by Dawn V.

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