Review of White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison

SFFaudio Review

White Witch, Black Curse by Kim HarrisonWhite Witch, Black Curse
By Kim Harrison; Read by
Marguerite Gavin
15 CDs – Approx. 18 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2009
ISBN: 1433270314
Themes: / Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / demons / vampires / banshees / pixies / memory / detective / romance /

White Witch, Black Curse is the seventh entry in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, also called the Rachel Morgan series after its protagonist. For the sake of full disclosure, I should state that I haven’t read the previous books in the series. It’s a testament to Harrison’s storytlling that I was still able to jump into the tale with only a minimal perusing of Wikipedia for character background. That said, purists will probably want to start with the first book in the series,  Dead Witch Walking, as indeed I intend to do.

Rachel Morgan is a witch who, along with her vampire companion Ivy Tamwood, runs a supernatural investigative agency called Vampiric Charms. She’s the supernatural equivalent of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Modern Cincinatti, in Harrison’s alternate history world, knows of the existence of supernatural beings, collectively dubbed inderlanders. Two federal agencies, the human-staffed Federal Inderlander Bureau and the otherworldly Inderlander Services security agency, maintain relations between the human world and that of the “ever-after” whence all other races came. Vampires, pixies, witches, and other strange beings walk the streets of Cincinatti, and not once in White Witch, Black Curse does their presence pass for comment among the book’s human characters. This marks a refreshing departure from other urban fantasy I’ve read, in which supernatural beings live underground, beyond the awareness of most everyday people.

As the novel opens, Rachel is attempting to solve the murder of her vampire boyfriend Kisten. In theory, this shouldn’t pose a problem, since she was present when the crime took place. But someone, somehow, has wiped her memory of that night’s events, and as she examines the crime scene she experiences only brief flashes of recollection and insight. A recent string of attacks apparently connected to a banshee also calls for her attention. As in most mysteries, these seemingly separate plotlines inevitably intersect at certain points as the novel progresses. The narrative hits several satisfying crescendos and climaxes throughout the book, but on the whole the plot plods along without any clear impetus to drive it forward.

The depth and dynamism of protagonist Rachel Morgan, however, redeems the novel from its mediocre plot. Like many heroines of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, she’s a badass. Unlike many other heroines, her character is balanced by a believable measure of insecurity, self-doubt, and even a hint of self-loathing. As a witch, she’s mostly confident in her magical abilities, but even in this realm she sometimes expresses hesitance. In the sphere of romance, she questions her suitability as a partner, calling herself an “albatross” who brings ruin upon those upon whom she bestows her love. No doubt this has something to do with the death of her former lover Kisten, and events in earlier novels might well bear this belief out as well. She also exhibits the tendency to rush bullheadedly into situations without considering the implications for herself or her circle of friends.

And Rachel is blessed with fast friends, family,  and other acquaintances who don’t comfortably fit into a single category. The unlikely highlight among the cast of supporting characters is the pixie Jenx, who often accompanies Rachel on her adventures. The foul-mouthed, irreverent little guy at first appears to serve as nothing more than comic relief, flitting around on a trail of pixie dust and spouting clever obscenities. Yet he stands–flutters?–by her when the going gets tough and many others have abandoned her.

The emotional textures of White Witch, Black Curse further offset the deficit of the novel’s mediocre plot. Rachel’s relationships seldom develop in predictable ways. Her friendships with her partner Ivy, FIB agent Captain Edden, and even the pixie Jenks, all come under occasional strain. The Morgan family dynamics are alo fraught with tension. And then there’s the romance. Rachel seldom devolves into the weak-kneed, crooning damsel of other romance novels. For the most part, she’s remarkably intellectual and circumspect in approaching relationships.

The book’s emotional power even extends to its magic. While not particularly organized or systematic in any “scientific” sense, the magic of the Hollows also hinges on feelings. FIB psychologist Ford has the empathic gift of reading emotional states of those around him. Auras also figure heavily into the plot as an external representation of a character’s internal state. Even a character of sound physical health might be in danger if their aura has been weakened by a recent traumatic experience.

Marguerite Gavin’s performance of White Witch, Black Curse isn’t the best audio rendition of urban fantasy I’ve heard, but it certainly does Harrison’s writing justice. Again, Jenx the pixie is the standout; she lends a nasal, sing-song voice to the spry winged creature which sparkles nearly as much as he does. On the whole, though, the best I can really say about Gavin’s performance is that it’s unobtrusive.

Fans of Kim Harrison’s Hollows series will find White Witch, Black Curse a satisfying continuation to the series. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance enthusiasts will also likely find much to like in Harrison’s unique world. Hardcore fantasy readers, on the other hand, might find themselves put off by a hit-and-miss plot and a lack of any real intellectual depth. Still, the book’s strong characters and emotional power make it a good candidate for some fun summertime reading.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Witchling by Yasmine Galenorn

SFFaudio Review

Greetings fellow SFFaudio readers! I just thought I’d introduce myself as one of the new geeks slated to post reviews for the site. I’m legally blind, and have relied on SFFaudio for years to direct me to fantasy and SF audio, from new blockbuster releases to hidden diamonds in the rough scattered around the Interwebs. I’m therefore thrilled to be contributing to the site, and look forward to giving something back to this awesome community. Okay, that should suffice for an introduction–now on to the review!

Witchling by Yasmine GalenornWitchling
By Yasmine Galenorn; Read by Cassandra Campbell
Audible Download – 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2008
Themes: / Supernatural Romance / Urban Fantasy / Vampires / Dragons / Faeries / Seattle /

I was a little hesitant to delve into Yasmine Galenorn’s Sisters of the Moon series, since it’s generally categorized as “supernatural romance”. Yes, this shows contempt prior to investigation on my part. I’ve never read any “paranormal romance”, or much “romance” at all, for that matter. Yet from the first page, I found myself enjoying the world and characters of Witchling. The book reaffirms my belief that genre labels like “paranormal romance” have more to do with marketing convenience than actual substance.

“Urban fantasy” hits nearer the mark. The events of Witchling unfold in Seattle and the surrounding countryside, including the stunning Mount Rainier. The story follows the three D’Artigo sisters, half-human half-faerie beings from Otherworld who conduct work for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency (OIA) to keep their homeland safe. The murder of Jocko the gentle giant by a demon sets the detective-story plot in motion, told through the voice of witch Camille D’Artigo.

For the most part, the pages of Witchling are populated with fantasy staples. Delilah D’Artigo is a changeling able to transform into a tabby cat, and the third sister Menolly was changed into a vampire. Dragons, demons, and sprites also lumber, skulk, and flit about. Though these might seem trite and cliché, Galenorn lends them all enough life and originality that they seldom detract from the story. More inventive figures also make appearances, most notably the Japanese kitsune (fox) demon Morio.

Like other first-person urban fantasy books I’ve read, Witchling’s style is contemporary, witty, and laced with humor. Despite hailing from Otherworld, Camille has apparently spent enough time on Earth to learn its ways, its slang, and its pop culture references, which she uses to good effect in her speech and exposition. The sprightly writing more than makes up for the slow pacing in the book’s first half. In fact, I really enjoyed the dialogue-driven, character-based opening chapters.

While at its heart Witchling is a fun trans-dimensional detective story, it does touch, in a desultory way, on some more serious themes. Since the D’Artigo sisters are half-bloods, born of a human mother and faerie father, they face prejudice and discrimination from both sides of the race divide. Sadly, this dynamic seldom crops up in the plot, but Camille does occasionally reflect on its ramifications for her family.

And, yes, there is romance. Throughout the novel, Camille is preoccupied to some degree with her love life, and this subplot moves apace with the main narrative thread. I found Camille’s libidinous mental musings distracting from the story at times, but overall the romantic scenes and trajectory fit the book’s tone.

Likable characters, an engrossing plot, and smart, snazzy, sexy writing make Witchling an enticing read. Hints throughout the novel and especially during its conclusion reveal that the events depicted are but the tip of the iceberg in an impending battle between faeries and demons, a battle in which it’s likely that humanity will become embroiled. I look forward to exploring Galenorn’s universe further in the sequel Changeling, which it appears is told from the perspective of werecat Delilah D’Artigo.

Cassandra Campbell’s narration of Witchling is solid but uninspired. She imbues a real sense of emotion into the characters, especially the three D’Artigo sisters. The novel’s contemporary style and numerous pop culture references flow naturally into her narration. Campbell sometimes has a tendency to drift into melodrama, however, and the male villains seem particularly overdrawn. On the whole, though, Campbell handles the material well.

For more information on Sisters of the Moon and Yasmine Galenorn’s other projects you can follow her on Twitter.

Posted by Seth Wilson

The SFFaudio Podcast #024

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #024 – Jesse and Scott discuss hardware (which is the best iPod), comics (graphic novels to some), movies (bad and worse) and even a few audiobooks (not so bad at all).

Talked about on today’s show:
Recent arrivals, Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip, Blackstone Audio, Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint, urban fantasy, Pebble In The Sky by Isaac Asimov, BBC Audiobooks America, Gentleman Of The Road by Michael Chabon, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke, New Orleans, why there’s no such thing as a “noir” series, Montana, film: Taken, ViolentWorldOfParker.com, Duplicate Effort by Kristine Katherine Rusch, the Moon, Audible.com’s Short Story sale, Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber, LibriVox + SFFaudio = Instant iTunes Audiobooks, “Here Comes The eBook Revolution” by Mike Elgan, the e-ing of magazines, review of The Book Of Lies by Brad Meltzer, Phantoms by Dean Koontz, revisionism – what authors shouldn’t go back and revise (or update) their published novels, evidence: Star Wars, Star Trek: Amok Time, Escape Pod returns! with a new Ken Scholes short story, Lamentation by Ken Scholes, Springtime for Hitler (and Germany), iPhone’s drawback (battery life), iPod Nano vs. iPod Classic vs. iPod Touch, The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake comes to audiobook on March 1st 2009, Decoder Ring Theatre, Gregg Taylor’s Black Jack Justice is now a webcomic!, Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman, Gaiman on CBC,

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Magic Street by Orson Scott Card

SFFaudio Review

Magic Street by Orson Scott CardMagic Street
By Orson Scott Card; read by Mirron E. Willis
11 CDs – 13.5 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0786178264
Themes: / Urban Fantasy / Fantasy / Shakespeare / A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Dreams /

Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street is an urban fantasy that links Shakespearean characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a middle-class black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Already not sounding like your cup of tea? Don’t scratch it off your list just yet. If Orson Scott Card wrote a book about a snail moving under a plant in a garden we would probably all marvel at the character development, be enraptured by the pacing of the story and how the plot develops and empathize with the moral dilemmas the snail must face! This excursion into urban fantasy, while not what we’re used to from Mr. Card, still gives us what we value in his writing.

Under inexplicable circumstances a boy named Mack Street is born into the world not yet alive and is immediately abandoned. Later found, he is raised by a couple of unlikely yet caring individuals. As he gets older Mack begins dreaming the deepest wishes of the people in his community. However, each time he experiences a “cold dream” the wishes invariably come true in a tragic way. Unable to understand the magic or speak to others about it, Mack keeps it a secret.

Then one day Mack discovers an entrance to fairyland. As he begins to interact with the magic of that world, his origin and purpose come into view. Mack and his community must act fast to guide events away from a tragic end.

The magic in the world is not explained until late in the story. The reader learns about it as Mack Street himself discovers the explanations. For me it was a bit taxing to go through so much of the story without being able to understand the meaning of the magical events, but the unfolding of the magic world is central to the story and, in a way, really facilitates identifying with the characters.

One of my favorite things about the book is the end. While the story intertwines itself with some of Shakespeare’s more light-hearted work, Magic Street is no comedy of errors. As the story reaches its climax it looks to be a tragedy of Shakespearean ilk. Disciples of the Bard can argue whether the ending is truly “Shakespearean” or not, but it concludes in a wonderfully complex way that leaves you feeling mournful of what was lost, but also that all is right and balanced.

It seems people either love or hate the story. Among the detractors are those disappointed to find the story departing from the genres they typically associate with Mr. Card. It certainly isn’t the fantasy of the Alvin Maker stories, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s an urban fantasy, and if you loathe urban fantasy you’ll dislike this book.

More critics, though, seem to focus on the racial issues. Mr. Card is not black and has written a story about black characters in a black community and does not shy away from discussing racial issues as he imagines them discussed among the characters. I don’t really know how to evaluate the validity of criticisms of how he approaches race, but I wonder what someone might think reading the same dialogue if they thought the author was black himself (I suspect they would be less critical). In any case the story is about people who are black and middle-class, and not about black, middle-class people. The characters are compelling because of what the reader shares with them as human beings, not because they are a case study of some part of Black America.

Mirron Willis was the reader for the story and did an excellent job. Among other projects he made a few appearances on ER as Detective Watkins, and on Star Trek: Voyager he appeared a couple of times as Rettik. Willis has won two Audiofile Earphone Awards and, coincidentally, he performs in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The synopsis on the back of the disc case dramatically reveals that Mack pursues “a forbidden relationship”. I think there must be a list of pre-approved comments to put on CD cases to entice people to buy it. I’ll wager that, as we speak, said list is attached to a dart board in someone’s office with a small hole in the words “forbidden relationship”, because it didn’t come from the story.

Magic Street is another story from Orson Scott Card that has been beautifully translated into audiobook format that is well worth your time.

Click here for an audio sample.

Posted by Mike