Tour’s Books Blog

April 3, 2010

New Urban Fantasy and Epic Fantasy Novels – Short Reviews

If anyone wonders why I grow impatient with badly told paranormal and urban fantasy novellas and novels that substitute sex for story, well here we go – 3 excellent examples of how good it can be when well done.  I do enjoy well done Urban Fantasy books out there with heroines can take care of themselves.   Here are some short reviews of two urban fantasies and one epic fantasy novel by a new writer.

  • Title: Spider’s Bite
  • Author:  Jennifer Estep
  • Type:  Urban Fantasy
  • Genre: Assassin and incorruptible cop team up uncover vicious magical killer and end up fighting a mutual attraction
  • Sub-genre:  Female assassin is setup by client to take the fall for killing a whistle blower, she must solve the mystery to live
  • My Grade: B-  (3.8*)
  • Rating:  PG-13 to NC-17
  • Length and price: Full length novel; about 110,000+ words for $7.99
  • Where Available:  Available where books are sold; Amazon 4-for-3 special
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from online bookseller

Spider’s Bite is the first book in Jennifer Estep’s new Elemental Assassin series and it was an excellent start.  Told in the first person by Gin Blanco, AKA The Spider, it opens with her killing a female psychologist in an asylum where where she made a habit of sexually abusing her young, male patients.  One of them went home and ended up killing himself.  The boy’s parents hired the Spider to kill her – and to make sure she know why she’s dying.  She does the job and escapes.  In addition to being the best assassin in the South, she’s also an elemental, one of the magic users that can tap into the elements and manipulate them.  It’s a talent she’s loathe to use because of what happened to her family.  First chapters can make or break a book.  It’s there, in those first pages, that a reader’s interest is won or lost.  The slamming first chapter is a gem.  The rest of the book doesn’t quite measure up to the beginning, but it’s still a hands down winner.

After Gin’s escape from the asylum, she gets back to her handler, Fletcher Lane, the man who took her in as a homeless kid, trained her as an assassin, and now acts as her handler, surrogate father, and friend.  He also runs The Pit, the best barbecue place in Ashland that sits on the edge of seedy Southtown.  Gin works there cooking and waiting tables, something she actually enjoys doing.  Fletcher’s son Finn is a banker and world class womanizer, but is also part of his father’s world.  Their relationship is is very brother-sister and all three are very close.

Fletcher has another assignment for Gin, a rush job for the next night to take out a man, an air elemental, found embezzling from a company that Mab Monroe’s companies.  The fee is a cool $5 million with the usual 50% up front.  Fletcher has already accepted.  He feels it’s time to cash out and for them to retire.  Gin is 30 years old, which for an assassin is getting up there.  With great reluctance, Gin accepts.

Mab Monroe is probably the powerful magic user in Ashland, a Fire elemental, as well as a ruthless business woman.  Cheating Mab is the equivalent of a death wish.  Her public persona might include generous donations to the arts, but in business, no sane person crosses Mab.  Alexis and Haley James, owners of the company that Gordan Giles works for, are there as well.  Disguised as an orchestra member, Gin gets into the place and  gets in position on the cat walk with a clear view of Giles’ box, when Donavon Caine shows up to talk to the obviously nervous Giles.  Gin killed Caine’s partner, a corrupt cop with a taste for raping under age girls.  Caine is well known as one of the few completely incorruptible cops in the city that’s riddled with corruption at all levels, including the police.  Gin hesitates – and another assassin shows up.  Not for Giles, for her.

Gin hasn’t become the famous Spider for no reason.  Her would be killer dies and she goes down to the box and kills the other assassins, slitting one throat right in front of Caine and Giles and leaving Giles very much alive.  Her escape isn’t easy with Caine after her for killing the men and his partner, and it takes precious hours for her to get back to Fletcher and The Pit.  She finds Fletch dead, tortured by an Air elemental, flayed alive.  She knows they’ll go for Finn next, so she has no time mourn.  She manages to save Finn and the two of them team up to find out who set them all up and killed Fletch in such a gruesome manner. But they need help, help only Caine can provide.  And Caine needs them to find out which cop sold out Giles.  The alliance between assassin and upright cop is an uneasy one made more difficult by the strong mutual attraction between them.

Unfortunately, the much of the book resembles a chick-lit mystery rather than an urban fantasy.  The ending is good, though many elements were a foregone conclusion. It does lay the groundwork for Gin to begin unraveling the truth about her own past – and who is responsible for the murder of her family. The whole magic user – where did it come from, how are people endowed with the gift, how is it developed, etc. is never explained.  The relationship between Gin and Caine is a classic set-up, but done pretty well, and Gin’s angst free acceptance of it while Caine suffered through a moral crisis about his attraction to an assassin was actually refreshing.  The weaknesses kept the book from being a B+.  The story was solid.  The ‘magic’ elements needed more structure and definition, as did many of the secondary characters.  A little too much chick-lit paranormal slipped into the style of writing which detracted from the fundamental ‘gritty’ nature of true urban fantasy.  The books was very readable, though the kick-ass first third was easily the best part.

Was Spider’s Bite worth $7.99?  You bet!  Go buy yourself a copy and enjoy.  Recommended for paranormal, paranormal romance and urban fantasy lite fans.

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  • Title: Blood of the Demon
  • Author:  Diana Rowland
  • Type:  Urban fantasy
  • Genre:  Murder, magic and demons in Louisiana
  • Sub-genre:  Book two in the Kara Gillian series
  • My Grade: B+ to A- (4.5*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price: Full length novel; about 110,000+ words for $7.99
  • Where Available:  Where books are sold; Amazon 4-for-3 special
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from online bookseller

Blood of the Demon is book 2 in the Kara Gillian series and as good or better than Mark of the Demon.  All too often the second book of a series is very weak.  The pattern seems to transcend genre.  Luckily, there are also plenty of exceptions and Blood of the Demon is one.

In Mark of the Demon, Kara accidentally summoned a Demon Lord.  He’s beyond handsome, but demon lords are not to be trifled with and he left his mark on her.   Now he asks her to be his summoner.  Demons are not inherently evil, but they are from a different culture with very different values.  Honor is everything to them, they will adhere to terms of a pact for their services, but they scheme, manipulate, and skillfully enmesh humans if incomplete truths.  The powerful the demon, the greater the more sophisticated and subtle their abilities and the less control the summoner has of their actions.  There is no real way for Kara to control the demon lord Rhyzkahl, and her attraction to him makes it worse, as do her persistent dreams of him.  She hasn’t slept well since the night she confronted The Symbol Man.  The night her beloved Aunt Tessa’s ‘essence’ was used to power the wards for summoning, the night Kara lay dying as she called Rhyzkahl to destroy The Symbol Man – and he took her to the demon realm to heal her and recall her from death.  The tie is there and it worries her.

Returning to work after being declared dead and buried with honors is not easy.  Neither is leaving her beloved aunt in a long term care facility while she tries to find a way to get her aunt’s essence – her soul – back to her body before the body dies.  Kara is burning the candle at both ends, in the middle, and every other place she can.  Then a murder happens.  Not an ordinary murder – a well liked fellow officer is found dead with a suicide note effectively admitting killing his wife during rough sex play.  But he isn’t just dead, his soul has been ripped out.  At first Kara fears a low level demon she summoned got free of her control and did it, but it didn’t, something, something evil did this.

The bodies pile up, most with their essence ripped out, until finally there’s one that clearly shows death came from the act of ripping the essence away, not a removal of essence from a recent death.  Kara is also battling the aftermath of having the wards removed from her Aunt’s house and library so she could access the arcane references books she needs to bring her aunt’s soul back.  The demon she summoned to remove the wards has a message from Rhyzkahl, he wants her to be his summoner.

In addition to the mystery of the deaths, there is also the mystery of who, or what, FBI agent Ryan Kristoff is.  Yes, Kara is deeply attracted to him, but it’s obvious he has ‘powers’ – and the demons hate him.  Ryan claims he doesn’t know why, but his partner Zack seems to know more than he’s will to say.

The story runs at a really good pace and for any mystery fan, it makes far more sense than most urban fantasy novels that try to combine police procedural and paranormal.  When Kara summons Lord Rhyzkahl after an argument with Ryan, the whole emotional turmoil made complete sense to me.  Kara Gillian is just believable as a character.  She has powers, but really is easy to identify with and understand.  I especially like the fact that  you can read this book without reading the first one in the series and it will still be a great read.  The ending was well done, the killer meeting a fitting end the only possible.

Was Blood of the Demon worth $7.99?  YES!  Highly recommended to any fan of urban fantasy who loves a good mystery.

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  • Title: The Red Wold Conspiracy
  • Author:  Robert V. S. Redick
  • Type:  Epic fantasy adventure
  • Genre:  Magic, death, intrigue, and coming of age and into power
  • Sub-genre:  Orphan becomes pawn and player in the game of kings and mages
  • My Grade: C+ to B- (3.5*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price: Full length novel; about 140,000+ words for $7.99
  • Where Available:  Where books are sold; Amazon 4-for-3 special
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from publisher’s site

First books by new authors are usually a hit or miss affair.  A rare few, like Aztec by Gary Jennings, or Rain Fall by Barry Eisler, or Magician by Raymond Feist, are so damn good they just blow you away.  Despite the effusive praise, The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick is NOT in their league, but it is worth an effort.

Redick sets in story in a mythical world where two rival empires, Mizthrin and Arquali, use magic, deception, cunning, fear and old fashioned brute force to rule.  He adds mages, tiny warriors, mer-people, slavers, and all manner of creatures great and small.  The author has an unfortunate penchant for unpronounceable names that detracts more than it adds to the story.  The book is also in dire need of a map so the geography of the events can be followed with some sense of relative place.  Redick is no Tolkien in creating a totally understandable and believable worlds and peoples.

Pazel Pashkendle, a tar boy nearing the age of becoming a seaman, is deliberately left stranded in a port by a ship’s officer paid to abandon him there.  As with many epic fantasies, the story is as much a coming of age tale as it is of adventure and Pazel’s past is much a part of this story. He is young, naive, and like all fantasy heroes, has a good heart.  He also has an odd gift for learning languages.  He reminds me of Pug in Feist’s Magician.  Though not clear here, he seems to one of those characters that will end up being more than they seem over the course of the series.

In another city, Thasha is finally leaving the prison like school where she’s been living since her father’s remarriage.  Her return home is marred by a warning from her old fighting arts instructor and her father’s apparent ill health.  She is thrilled to find Ramachni, a Thasha is far less thrilled to learn she is destined for a political marriage.  Thasha is a fighter and she’s deeply suspicious of her conniving step-mother, with good cause.  Thasha is one of the better female characters, strong, independent minded, and willing to take chances.  For me, she was more real than Pazel.

The story is just too complex to get into, but it centers around the search for an artifact the Red Wolf, a semi-mythical item said to hold enormous power – feared and lusted for by sorcerers and kings using the last of the sorcerer built mega-ships Chathrand captained by the enigmatic captain Nhils Rose.

The ending was suitably mysterious to entice readers to solider on with Redick’s next book, The Ruling Sea.

After reading the glowing reviews and the reader reviews on Amazon, I am somewhat perplexed by the effusive praise.  The Red Wolf Conspiracy was good, but certainly not groundbreaking and just not in the same league as Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist, or George R R Martin.  The plot got muddled and the middle of the book seemed out of sync with the good, if somewhat confusing, beginning.  I found much of the story predictable.  It was also cluttered with too many secondary and tertiary storylines that dead-ended and just added unnecessary confusion rather than clarity.  I felt the book could have been improved by a little ruthless editing.

Epic fantasy is tough to pull off.  It needs characters with personalities that we can identify with, a story that will engage our interest and emotion so we care about the characters, a plot filled challenges the characters and makes them grow into more than what they were, it has laughter, sorrow, and a setting that’s as real to as what’s outside our window.  Lord of the Rings is the quintessential epic fantasy scoring perfect 10’s on every element – it can even make me cry, and there are damn few books that engage me enough for that!  When measuring epic fantasy against the best, or even the best being written now, The Red Wolf Conspiracy was good, not great, not groundbreaking, not ‘can’t wait for book two’, just good.

Was The Red Wolf Conspiracy worth $7.99?  I’d say yes for die hard fantasy readers who have read everything else.  For those starting to read epic fantasy, there are better books out there – try one of the authors named above.

The ending lays the groundwork for Gin to begin unraveling the truth about her own past – and who is responsible for the murder of her family.
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1 Comment »

  1. I may have to get that “Spider’s Bite” book. It sounds pretty good.

    Your reviews are tough, but I’m inclined to think they’re fair.

    Comment by Erin — April 14, 2010 @ 4:26 pm | Reply


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