Review

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

Time SalvagerI received an advance copy of Wesley Chu‘s Time Salvager [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] a while back. The book comes out on July 7, and is a rather dark time-travel adventure based in a grim 26th century. From the publisher’s description:

In a future when Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humanity has spread into the outer solar system to survive, the tightly controlled use of time travel holds the key maintaining a fragile existence among the other planets and their moons. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman–a convicted criminal recruited for his unique psychological makeup to undertake the most dangerous job there is: missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets an intriguing woman from a previous century, scientist Elise Kim, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, James brings her back to the future with him, turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, and discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

James Griffin-Mars is bitter, burnt out, and in some respects broken. The laws of time travel limit him to locations where his thefts won’t be noticed: ships and facilities doomed to destruction. Those same laws mean he’s constantly abandoning the people he meets, leaving them to die. Between that and the crumbling world of his home time, it’s no wonder Griffin-Mars is rather messed up.

As a result, for much of the book, he’s rather unlikeable, too. He can’t afford to be likeable, not if he’s going to do his job and survive. He’s also got a kind of paternalistic attitude toward his love interest, Elise Kim. In some ways it makes sense — she’s a stranger to his time, and he doesn’t exactly fill her in on how much danger she’s in. Not right away, at least. The book is very aware of how Griffin-Mars is broken, and part of the story arc is his struggle to rediscover his own humanity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was seeing different slices of future Earth history, and Chu’s take on how technology and society evolve over the coming centuries. I was particularly fond of the character of Grace Priestly, creator of the Time Laws. Like most everyone else in the book, she can be cold and ruthless, but I appreciated her overall “Screw you I do what I want” attitude.

There’s not a lot of humor or warm fuzzy moments. There is plenty of action, some nifty ideas, and strong bleak-but-not-quite-dystopic worldbuilding. It’s a book with a lot of desperation, and it sets up an underdog-style against-all-odds fight for survival, both for our protagonist and for our species.

You can read the first chapter on the Tor website.

The Flash Discussion Post

Last night was the season finale of The Flash. I’ve enjoyed this show a lot, in part for its sense of fun, its wholehearted embrace of comic book tropes, the relationship between Barry and Joe, and of course, Tom Cavanagh.

At the same time, the writing has sometimes been a bit clunky, and the overall track record with female characters is rather poor. (With that said, things improved greatly for Iris’ character in the last few episodes.)

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Flash Helmet

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Age of Ultron Thoughts & Discussion

My wife and I caught Avengers: Age of Ultron over the weekend. It wasn’t as strong as its predecessor, but it was a generally fun film. I feel strange saying this about a 2.5 hour movie, but I think it needed to be significantly longer, given the amount of story they were trying to tell.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Hulk

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED

Scarlet Witch

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Book Reviews: Lord & Brennan

The Best of All Possible WorldsTwo more book reviews, starting with The Best of All Possible Worlds [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Karen Lord. I received a copy of this one, along with The Galaxy Game, at ConFusion earlier this year.
I loved Lord’s debut novel, so I was very much looking forward to what she did next.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

This is not whiz-bang, robots-and-lasers-and-spaceships-and-explosions science fiction. It’s a very thoughtful and well-written story of cultural displacement, interplanetary refugees, and the struggle between compromise and preservation of culture.

The Sadiri are described as “the epitome of morality and tradition, savants too absorbed in their mental exercises to succumb to base urges.” They arrive on the colony of Cygnus Beta after their homeworld is attacked and destroyed. Here, they set out to find settlements of genetically and culturally compatible humans, hoping to preserve as much of their ways as possible.

The narrator is Grace Delarua, part of the diplomatic party helping the Sadiri on their search. This sets up a somewhat episodic framework where we see different settlements and cultures, while at the same time learning more about the larger world and events, as well as getting a gradual romantic storyline between Grace and one of the Sadiri.

It’s a powerful book, exploring so many “what if” ideas — mental powers, time travel, planetary settlement — while at the same time being intensely relevant to our own world. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth reading.

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Voyage of the BasiliskI also recently read the second and third of Marie Brennan‘s Lady Trent books: The Tropic of Serpents [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] and Voyage of the Basilisk [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. In some respects, these are similar to Lord’s book. They aren’t action-heavy sword-fighting quests, but thoughtful explorations of culture and science, presented as memoirs by Isabella (Lady Trent), who became the world’s foremost expert on dragons.

From the publisher:

The Tropic of Serpents: Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

Voyage of the Basilisk: Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

One of the things I love about this series is the protagonist’s passion for science and knowledge. We talk about sense of wonder, and Isabella conveys that wonder, not about big flashy magic or fancy special effects (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but about discovery. She repeatedly risks her life, her reputation, and more for the chance to learn. She’s wonderfully and at times foolishly driven.

Like Lord, Brennan has developed a rich world. Brennan’s is based more closely on our own, drawing on cultures and countries from Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and more. (Brennan’s background in anthropology helps a great deal, as does her intense research habits.) Over the course of the three books, we’ve seen much of that world and its people, but we also see a larger story about the progression of science and knowledge, and ongoing political conflicts.

One such story arc involves the preservation of dragon bones. Like birds, dragons have very light bones, but those bones are incredibly strong — so long as the dragon survives. Upon the animal’s death, the bones become fragile and crumble away into dust. Back in book one, Isabella and her companions discovered a way to preserve those bones, a process with many potential implications and uses … and one that has serious impacts on the hunting of dragons, not to mention the political fallout. Watching that knowledge spread, seeing the technological changes and Isabella’s struggle, is one of several wonderful storylines.

And of course, the books have great covers as well as internal illustrations, ostensibly by Lady Trent herself (with help from artist Todd Lockwood).

I look forward to the next!

Sword, by Amy Bai

Sword, by Amy BaiI am so far behind on posting reviews. Let’s start with Sword [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Amy Bai. I believe this is Bai’s first novel, and it’s an impressive debut. Sword is a YA fantasy with swords (duh) and magic and kingdoms and betrayal and all that good stuff. From the publisher’s description:

For over a thousand years, the kingdom of Lardan has been at peace: isolated from the world, slowly forgetting the wild and deadly magic of its origins. Now the deepest truths of the past and the darkest predictions for the future survive only in the verses of nursery rhymes. And prophecies are just nursery rhymes for gullible fools. Right?

So thinks Kyali Corwynall, daughter of the Lord General and the court’s only sword-wielding girl. She’s never bothered believing in faery stories. But one day, an old nursery rhyme she’s heard since childhood begins to come true, naming her as Sword and her brother and best friend as Song and Crown, saviors of the kingdom. When that ancient magic wakes, the future changes for everyone. In the space of a single night, her life unravels into violence and chaos.

The opening few chapters felt a little slow to me, mostly because what I was reading seemed familiar. We’re introduced to Kyali and her skill with fighting and swordplay, her brother Devin and his bardic magic, and their close friend the Princess Taireasa. But once the plot picked up, I was hooked hard. Much of the book made me feel like a kid again, getting caught up in the excitement and the battles and the prophecies and the characters and their relationships. It hits many of the notes of a good page-turning fantasy.

That brings up my other stumbling point, because while I love the tropes of fantasy and I’m generally thrilled to revisit them, there are a few I could do without. Early on, Kyali finds herself holding a room against multiple enemies while the princess escapes. They ask where the princess has gone, and naturally she refuses, which leads to this exchange.

“I think you will tell us eventually, general’s daughter.”

His meaning was plain.

Oh, gods, she thought — death, she had braced herself for. This possibility had never occurred to her.

She would just have to find a way to die, then. After she killed as many of these as came near her.

I almost stopped reading here. Not because the scene was bad or badly written, nor did it feel gratuitous. It’s simply not something I wanted to read.

But I kept reading, and I’m glad I did. The consequences to Kyali are intense, and shape her character for the rest of the book. But her internal struggle isn’t solely from the implied sexual assault (it’s never explicitly spelled out). There’s another kind of trauma related to her magic, and that turns her into…not a stone cold warrior, but a woman trying desperately to project that coldness in order to protect the people closest to her.

I enjoyed the use of prophecy. It’s another trope, but something about the way Bai wrote the story brought new energy to the idea. Prophecy isn’t a mysterious riddle. It’s not a set of plot coupons to be collected. Its a burden. It’s as much a mystery to be unraveled and understood as the political machinations and the clashes between armies. And it puts Kyali in the role of warrior, with her brother as the bard, which was a nice reversal.

The secondary characters were interesting and engaging. (For those who’ve read it, am I the only one who was shipping Devin and Prince Kinsey?) There’s a lot going on in this book, and all of the players fit the story, and were people I wanted to read about.

There’s an energy to the story that’s hard to describe. It might be a first novel thing. You should take this bit with a grain of salt, because I’m pretending to read the author’s mind, and that often ends badly…but reading the book, I could almost feel how excited the author was to share the story and these characters. That excitement and love and affects my own reading, which is a good thing.

Sword is book one in what I’m guessing will be a trilogy, so the end of the book isn’t the end of the story. No cliffhanger ending though, which I appreciate.

Overall, I think it’s a good book. I also recognize that some elements may not be to everyone’s taste.

The first twenty-four pages are available online, if you’d like to check it out.

The Flash

I need to geek out about The Flash. We started watching the show with episode one, and after so much bleak and dark DC comic adaptations, The Flash is an absolute delight. It’s fun. It dives unapologetically into the comics universe, and doesn’t shy away from the more “out there” aspects. For example, one recent instance gives us a cameo of Grodd. That’s right, they added a superintelligent CGI gorilla to the show. And damn if it didn’t work.

I should say up front that the show isn’t perfect. I could do without Flash’s speed being a bit variable depending on the needs of the script. (He’s fast enough to pluck a bullet out of the air, but can’t circle around and take a gun from Captain Cold?) And they haven’t done a great job with their female characters. Barry’s mother is fridged in the first episode, and the other two women are significantly defined by their romantic relationships, unlike the rest of the cast.

Flash - My Bad

But there’s so much The Flash does right:

  • Barry and Joe: When Barry’s father was arrested for the murder of Barry’s mother, it was Detective Joe West who took Barry in. Now that Barry’s grown up, he and Joe have this amazing relationship of love and respect and communication and trust. Joe still looks out for Barry, but he also treats him like an adult. Joe finds out Barry’s secret in the first episode…and they geek out together over some of the things he can do. When Barry demonstrates how he can vibrate to disguise his face and voice, Joe just bursts out laughing. I love these two!
  • Cisco: Cicso Ramon and Dr. Caitlin Snow are employees at S.T.A.R. Labs, working for Dr. Harrison Wells. Cicso is the geek who shows up wearing T-shirts and builds freeze rays and so on, but part of his goofy charm is his need to nickname the various villains who show up from week to week. Comic book names can sound pretty ridiculous, but by turning it into just a thing Cisco does, it works. It also creates opportunities for banter with the other characters. Cisco is more than a two-dimensional geek, and gets to be a deeper character in some episodes, but he’s also just a lot of fun.
  • Dr. Wells: I love the ongoing mystery here. Tom Cavanaugh manages to give us a character who seems to be a villain, but how villainous is he, really? He’s got secrets and lies aplenty, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. And yet he has moments when you want to cheer him on, like the scene with Grodd at the end of episode 14.
  • Diversity: Central City’s police chief David Singh is an openly gay man. So is the villain the Pied Piper. Joe and Iris West are black. Cisco is Puerto Rican. The writers don’t make a big deal out of and of this; that’s just who the characters are. Could the show do better? Sure…I’d love to see some episodes pass the Bechdel Test. But as these things go, I think they’re doing pretty well.

Pied Piper

  • Other: The special effects work, which is impressive, given the small-screen budget. The music is great. They brought in John Wesley Shipp, star of the 90s Flash TV show, to play Barry’s father. He has wonderful crossovers with Oliver Queen from Arrow, in which Oliver shoots Barry in the back. As one does.

Short version: This show makes me happy. It’s right up there with The Librarians in terms of fun and entertainment.

What do the rest of you think?

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

One of the coolest things about being an author is getting advance copies of books that aren’t out yet. Such was the case with Elizabeth Bear‘s western steampunk Karen Memory [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], which comes out on February 3, 2015. I got to read it back in November. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!

Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, here’s the publisher’s description:

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

What the publisher really should have opened with is the fact that this book features a steam-powered Singer sewing machine mecha-suit that’s been heavily modified and upgraded. Readers might ask if it really makes logical sense to transform a sewing machine into something so complicated and mechanically convoluted. To which one could reply, “Who cares? It’s a freaking sewing machine mech!”

While there are other elements that are just plain fun, there’s a lot more going on in this book. You’ve got a group of women teaming up against several different layers of villainy, from a serial killer to large-scale political mind-control schemery. There’s high-stakes action with a nice bit of romance thrown in. Some of the plot revelations and twists at the end came a little too fast for me, but that might be a matter of personal taste.

Karen and company aren’t exactly the privileged class of 19th century society, and Bear doesn’t ignore the prejudices of the time. She’s worked to create a diverse cast of characters, but those characters face additional challenges. Marshal Bass Reeves is a black man, and at one point is threatened with lynching. His partner, a Comanche named Tomoatooah, is forced to flee the town. And while Karen is relatively open-minded and accepting, you also see her using the language of the times, and occasionally stumbling over her own prejudices.

While Karen and her allies live and work in a bordello, nothing sexual happens on the page. Karen’s life isn’t romanticized, either. Bear acknowledges that this can be ugly work. But it’s not something that needs to be on the page for the story Bear’s telling.

Bear brings together a strong plot, an engaging voice, and good characters. (I’m particularly fond of the foul-mouthed Madame Damnable.)

Check the Tor website for an excerpt.

Book Reviews: Stross, Valente, and Snyder

Jennifer Morgue CoverI’ve fallen behind in my book reviewing again, so this is my attempt to catch back up, starting with The Jennifer Morgue [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Charles Stross.

This is part of Stross’ Laundry Files, about magic and computers and government employees. In this one, “Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker for The Laundry, must stop a ruthless billionaire from unleashing an eldritch horror, codenamed ‘Jennifer Morgue’ from the ocean’s depths for the purpose of ruling the world…”

This was another fun read, similar in tone to The Atrocity Archives (which I enjoyed, and reviewed here). Only there’s an added twist. Without getting into details, Stross has found a clever way to write a tribute/parody of a certain other subgenre, one which fits perfectly with the rules of the world he’s created. It felt a little forced in one or two places, but for the most part, I enjoyed watching Stross play with the tropes and structures of those other books, while occasionally smiling and thinking, I see what you did there.

The character of Ramona was fascinating, and representative of the real darkness Stross gets into with these books, beneath the humorous surface. People have talked to me about feeling uncomfortable with Lena Greenwood’s character, with her nature and the way I chose to write her. Ramona created similar discomfort as I read–she’s possessed by a succubus, meaning she has a physical need for sex, as well as using sex as a weapon of assassination. While I’m not sure Stross handles this perfectly, neither do I, and I give him credit for not ignoring the problematic aspects of Ramona’s character.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first book, you’ll almost certainly like this one as well. They’re smart, different, and bring enough humor and darkness and action to keep things moving.

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Fairyland CoverNext up is Catherynne Valente’s award-winning YA book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], about a 12-year-old girl named September who leaves Omaha during WWI to travel with the Green Wind to Fairyland, where she befriends a wyvern who’s part library (only A through L), meets witches, rustles wild bicycles, confronts a queen, and so much more.

Valente’s imagination shines through from every page, presented in lush language by a narrator who offers their own commentary throughout the book. It felt like I was reading an old-fashioned tale of young, fantastic adventure, with shades of Wonderland and Narnia and more. I enjoyed it, but I could also see reading this one to my 9-year-old. I suspect he’d get a kick out of it.

My guess is that a lot will depend on whether or not you like Valente’s style in this book. I’d definitely recommend checking out the excerpt on the publisher’s website.

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Finally, there’s Lucy A. Snyder’s Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (and Other Oddities) [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], a collection of “12 humor stories about computers and the forces of evil.” I received a review copy of this one in audio book format, as read by Mary Bertke, and listened to it while driving to and from ConFusion earlier this month.

The collection starts with step-by-step instructions for installing Linux on a dead badger, but this is only the start. From there, the stories begin to explore the implications of a world where you can reanimate the dead with the right hardware and operating system. Many of the stories take the form of news reports, exploring everything from the implications of zombie call centers to the special Kung Fu mode you can activate in your dead badger.

The first story went on a little long for my taste, but I liked the larger picture Snyder created as the collection progressed in its satirical exploration of a world — particularly the corporate world — that’s gotten its hands on magic. As someone who’s worked both in tech support and in the land of cubicle bureaucracy, many of Snyder’s ideas felt just familiar and plausible enough to be funny. (And also depressing, now that I think about it … how many of us could be replaced with zombies at our day jobs?)

Three of the stories are available on Strange Horizons:

Legend of Korra 4×2: Korra Alone

Legend of Korra
4×2: Korra Alone

Full episodes available at Nick.com.

Episode Summary (from the Avatar Wiki): While being haunted by a shadow of herself in the Avatar State, Korra reminisces about the hardships she went to in the course of three years. In 171 AG, she retreated to the Southern Water Tribe in an attempt to heal her body and her mind. After two years and with Katara’s help, she was able to recover physically, though continued to have visions about Zaheer and the attempt on her life. In 173 AG, she set out on a journey across the world to reconnect with Raava, though to no avail. In 174 AG, while wandering through a small Earth Kingdom town, she decides to confront the vision of herself and ends up losing. However, when a small dog begs her to follow it, she does so and after passing out in a swamp after a new confrontation with her Avatar self, she wakes up in the home of Toph.

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Book Reviews: Clines, Rothfuss, and Hearne

I’m falling behind in my book reviewing, so I’m going to cram a few together in one blog post.

Ex-Heroes CoverBook the first: Ex-Heroes [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Peter Clines. This is basically a post-apocalyptic zombie book with superheroes, which is an interesting premise. As powerful as the heroes are, they’re not invulnerable, and they’re vastly outnumbered. They’ve established a stronghold called The Mount, in the ruins of Hollywood, where they scavenge for supplies and do their best to protect their citizens from the exes (ex-humans), as well as a street gang that’s discovered some powers of their own.

Clines hits a lot of the expected beats for a zombie story, including flashbacks to the beginning of the disaster, various scenes of humans being trapped by exes, and the terror of the endless sea of undead at the gates. I appreciated that there was at least one twist that I didn’t see coming. (And it has a blurb from Nathan Fillion, which is both cool and incredibly envy-making.)

I’d recommend this one to fans of zombies and Watchmen.

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The Slow Regard of Silent Things - CoverBook the second: The Slow Regard of Silent Things [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Patrick Rothfuss. Pat writes an interesting introduction to this novella (novelette?), in which he warns people, “You might not want to buy this book … it doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.”

More than anything, this struck me as a character study. Auri is a secondary character in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. In this book, we follow a week in Auri’s life.

Depending on how you read it, there isn’t a lot happening in this book. Auri lives beneath the university, a world of empty caves and tunnels and pipes and ponds and abandoned rooms. In some respects, she reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood, a character who sees the world in a very different and odd way. But in Auri’s case, you get hints of her past, of someone who was broken and rebuilt herself and her world.

If you’re looking for a strong plot, or for a story that has an impact on the greater world, you should probably skip this one. Auri spends her days exploring, finding lost objects and putting them in their proper places, exploring different rooms, and searching for the right gift for him.

The writing is gorgeous, and I was fascinated by Auri’s character, who seems to walk a very thin line between beauty and crippling OCD. My only complaint is that I wish she wasn’t so fixated on him (Kvothe, from Rothfuss’ novels). I understand that this is in keeping with the books, but it frustrates me to read such a beautifully written woman whose existence revolves around a guy. I’ve just been reading too much of that sort of thing lately.

That said, it’s a beautifully written story, though it won’t work for everyone. It inspired me to try some new things with my own writing and characters.

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Hounded - CoverBook the third: Hounded [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Kevin Hearne.

This is book one of Hearne’s popular Iron Druid chronicles, and I can see why he’s done so well with it. It’s page-turning fun, with a 2000+ year old druid called Atticus O’Sullvain living in Arizona with a delightful Irish wolfhound. For a long time, he’s been hiding from a very angry god who wants a sword Atticus stole centuries ago.

Lots of action, a good helping of snark, and entertaining, larger-than-life characters, from the werewolf and vampire legal team to the possessed bartender to the Irish widow Atticus hangs out with, swapping Irish tales.

There’s also a bit of hetero-male wish-fulfillment going on, with several beautiful and powerful women who all want to sleep with Atticus. On the other hand, Hearne presents a range of female characters, all with their own strengths.

In sum, a fun and entertaining read.

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So, that’s some of my recent reading. Any of these three strike you as interesting? Or if you’ve read them, feel free to share your thoughts.