War Witch by Layla Nash

WarWitchCoverWar Witch
by Layla Nash
2017

This was a BookBub find and it was a fun urban fantasy with witches and werewolves. It’s set fifteen years after The Breaking, when supernatural powers and creatures were revealed to the rest of humanity, and five years after The Truce was implemented at the end of an exceptionally bloody 10-year-long civil war in which everyone was fighting everyone else and a lot of people died.

Out main character, Lily, was an incredibly powerful witch at the forefront of the fighting during the civil war and is now trying to find some semblance of peace and wanting nothing to do with the current power structure, staying as unaligned as she possibly can from the many, many factions still struggling to figure out their place. Nash has done some amazing world building with the concept that there’s the truce between humans and supernatural beings, but each side is made up of groups that contain smaller groups that contain individuals and pretty much all of them have their own conflicts and alliances and motives. And five years is a very short time for peace while ten years is a very long time for a civil war. So the whole society is extremely fraught.

And into this situation some witches work illegal demon magic and Lily is the main suspect. (In part because she’s been hiding that she can and has summoned demons, but not this particular time.)

In addition to the world building, I also kind of love the romance side plot. It’s really obvious the Lily, an unaligned witch trying to lay low, and Leif, an extremely high ranked werewolf enforcer for the current power structure, are attracted to each other. However, they are also in conflict with each other because they can sympathize with but not abide by each other’s political stances. It’s just a really interesting dynamic and I enjoyed seeing how Nash worked it.

What I wasn’t so happy with was how it ended with a clear set-up for a second book. I’m increasingly developing a pet peeve against books that spend their final chapter(s) setting up the next book rather than completing the current book. Also, this book doesn’t appear to have a sequel yet anyway. But anyway, I found the end of the book annoying, but the world building was excellent and the character interactions were both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Adult Fantasy Books Not By Straight White Men

Witchmark

By CL Polk

WitchmarkWitchmark is the first of the many library holds I put on books recommended by the Tumblr’s Adult fantasy books not by straight white men! and I’m so glad that it was the first one I read!

It is a little hard to review because it is just satisfying across the board. It has a lot of the elements of a comfort read: a common-man protagonist who must rely on his hidden magic in the face of adversity, a light romance with a charming but mysterious stranger, and a truly shocking conspiracy by a shadowy society that must be revealed to the world.

Set in fictional world, it is heavily based on post-WWI London. The metropolitan has recently been wired with new fangled electricity, and a treaty has finally brought the end to a brutal war between nations. Soldiers are returning home in mass, where our protagonist Miles does his best to hide his healing magic and personal history while working at an understaffed and underfunded veterans hospital.

The book starts off as a murder mystery, with a fatally ill man being brought to Miles by his own request, and insisting to him that he has been murdered just before he dies. This probably would have been enough to hook me, but the fantasy and romance elements are woven in so deftly that it became this wonderful amalgam of genres that made me want to read the sequel immediately (unfortunately not due out for a couple of months).

Amberlough

By Lara Elena Donnelly

AmberloughAmberlough cut a bit close to our current state of affairs, honestly. Set in a fictional world inspired by 1930s Germany, Cyril DePaul is a secret agent assigned to uncover why an extremely conservative party is winning elections despite low popularity in polls. Collusion and extortion is suspected (sound familiar?), but before he can discover anything Cyril is quickly uncovered by the wealthy industrialists that make up the party leadership, and strong-armed into betraying his employer and government.

Though I was sympathetic to his plight, Cyril is cowardly and too easily compromised. His lover, Aristide, the emcee of a popular cabaret, is vicious and self-serving, using Cyril for access to state secrets that could inform his side business smuggling. The central dancer at the cabaret, Cordelia, is drawn into their schemes, and is vapid…until she isn’t.

Which is when the book shifted for me, finally becoming more about schemes and espionage than characterizations of unpleasant people. Unfortunately, this happens almost 200 pages into the book, so it was a slow start, to say the least. And then, 100 pages later, everything goes to shit, perhaps accurate of 1930s Berlin and dare I say our current news cycle, and it becomes especially unpleasant reading.

It reminded me a fair bit of Jo Walton’s Small Change series, but even grimmer and joyless. Amberlough is well thought out and extremely well written, but I hated reading just about all of it, and felt entirely depleted after finishing it.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

CertainDarkThingsCertain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2016

This book was listed on the tumblr post Adult fantasy books not by straight white men and only realized afterwards that Anna was already reading a book by the same author. This book was summarized as “vampire noir in Mexico city.” It is really good!

It’s a vaguely futuristic dystopian world where there’s so much extreme poverty that the futuristic elements are minor flashes that just highlight how nothing has changed for the vast majority of people. It’s also a world where all the vampire legends from different lands are based on real beings, and there are ten confirmed types of vampires. It’s only been a few decades since vampires were revealed as real creatures but it’s now the norm, and the norm is that vampires run several of the major drug cartels. So in addition to the conflicts between government and drug cartel, there’s also conflict between government and vampires, between different vampire species, and between different drug cartels. And it all gets extremely messy and extremely bloody.

While the novel switches out point of view between several different characters, our main character is Domingo, a human guy in his late teens I think, who starts off feeling pretty good about himself and his place in the world: he’s got a steady income picking through trash and finding things he can sell and a place of his own in an abandoned metro tunnel. And then he sees a beautiful woman and tries talking to her and she actually acknowledges him! How lucky is he?

And just, he is kind of lucky because of all the vampires that he could have met she needs help that doesn’t involve him dying. Mostly.

It is also very much a noir. The bad guys are the bad guys because they are truly horrifically evil and the good guys are the good guys because at least they’re not as bad as the bad guys. But it’s a gritty world and no one is truly innocent. In the end everything works out in the best possible way but there’s just no real chance at a happy ending.

Actually, I take that back, spoiler alert: the dog lives. So that’s happy.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods_of_Jade_and_ShadowOoh, this book is so good (and how gorgeous is that cover)! It really does stand as uniquely its own, but all the descriptors I can think of are derivative of other books: it’s like American Gods but gentler, funnier, and somehow just more feminine; it’s got elements of both The Last Unicorn and The Labyrinth, a couple of my favorite pieces of media. Basically, they all have common motifs of mortals discovering the unexpected power they have to either help or resist immortals.

Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea is the poor relation in a wealthy family, in her own words: treated like Cinderella, but without the sweetness of character that earns Cinderella her eventual reward. She instead balances duty and resentment in a very recognizable way and chafes at her endless days of drudgery until she accidentally releases a God of Death from imprisonment. At which point, she is basically conscripted in his search for vengeance against those that imprisoned him, leading her from her small town, where her family at least was a large fish in a little pond, into progressively larger cities and exposing her to an array of beings, both natural and supernatural.

This is where it gets tricky. Our heroine is human in the most empathetic way, trying to do what is right while struggling with all the human weaknesses of anger and anxiety, while the god is charming in his own aloof, uncompromising way. The two are supernaturally connected for the duration of this quest, to the peril of both. There is a predominate theme, similar to in The Last Unicorn, of how lengthy exposure to mortals and the mortal world weakens/tarnishes immortals so that they are never as pure as they were to begin with, and that is very effective suspense for me.

A serious trigger warning, however: this is a God of Death we are talking about here, so there is plenty of death abounding, including animal sacrifice and suicide. Now both of those are things that I’m pretty sensitive to, and I was able to read it without trouble because they happen quickly and matter-of-factly instead of really delving into the gritty details, but take care.

While I was reading this, Rebecca sent me a link to a Tumblr post, which gives a variety of excellent recommendations for “Adult fantasy books not by straight white men!” The poster organized it by general tone, which is so, so useful. Under “Urban Fantasy,” one of my favorite sub-genres, she recommends a vampire noir in Mexico City by Moreno-Garcia, so that’s definitely on my to-read list!

Similarly, Rebecca then also sent me a list to “Become Very Well-Read Without Reading Anything by a Man” where you can see how many well-known (not necessarily classics) books by female authors you’ve read, and I love an opportunity to show off my reading! This was not that opportunity because I’d only read 36 out of the 250 books, but it did give me a lot of additional recommendations to look forward to!

— Anna

Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern

bloodlust-and-bonnets-9781471178955_lgBloodlust & Bonnets
by Emily McGovern
2019

I first ran across this artist/author via her My Life as a Background Slytherin comics which are hilarious and adorable and I highly recommend. And at some point she made a four-page comic called Bloodlust & Bonnets that is hilarious and gorgeous and I also highly recommend.  This book, by the same name as that short, is a 200 page graphic novel that uses those first four pages as the prologue. (Although the art is simplified for the book version.)

For the plot: there’s an evil vampire cult! Lucy, the plucky debutant is targeted by them! Lord Byron has a magical castle! The mysterious bounty hunter Sham has secrets! Napoleon is a psychic eagle! Secret societies and blood oaths and balls and gentlemen’s clubs and turkish baths and succubi and more plucky debutants!

This book is hilarious but also I could only read it in small doses, a chapter at a time. The ongoing joke through the whole thing is just how incompetent all the characters are. Like, all of them. It’s an even playing field at least? With the possible exception of the flighty and wealthy professional widow who is not so much incompetent as she is distracted by other things… ie, potential future dead husbands. So here I am with my competence kink wondering when someone will show up with some competence and each new character is a tease because they all think they’re very capable and introduce themselves that way and they’re all so very much not. Which also makes it fit in kind of hilariously well in British costume drama style.

This is pretty much a take off of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or Jane Slayre, with Wodehouse & Jeeves, Pink Panther, and Monty Python influences. Which all comes together to say that this book is amazing but also, wow, how are these characters so dumb and yet still walk and breath at the same time???

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

OrphansOfRaspay1The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

Yay! Another Penric & Desdemona short story by Bujold! For the first time, Amazon’s update email was actually useful to me despite going out a full week after the novella was published on July 17th. Normally I stalk Bujold’s listing much more carefully but I’ve been busy recently and thus only learned about this title on the 24th when Amazon finally got around to emailing me.

It is a delight! It’s also a novella of extreme self-indulgence, with both plot and character arc being mostly absent, but adventure and swashbuckling in quantity!

This is also an amazing example of what you can get away with if you set up the world-building right. Because in this fantasy world, there are five gods (father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard) and Penric is a devotee of the Bastard: literally the god of luck (good and bad) and all things out of season. And thus, it actually makes perfect in-universe sense for Penric to have amazingly good and bad luck in all things, especially when one takes into account his demon Desdemona who sheds chaos even as she also provides him with extraordinary powers.

The story starts with his ship being attacked by pirates and continues on in wacky hijinks after he’s taken on the temporary guardianship, as best he can, of two young orphans who were also taken by the pirates.*

This is an utter delight and I have no idea how comprehensible it is to anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the series but I’d be interested to know if it’s so indulgent that it actually can stand on its own. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life (or, in this case, week-in-the-life) of a temple sorcerer in a fantasy world.  And I love it!

* While I love this story, here’s a warning for pirates being pirates and actually genuinely bad and there are threats of sexual assault.

Love for the Cold-Blooded by Alex Gabriel

coldbloodedLove for the Cold-Blooded: Or: The Part-Time Evil Minion’s Guide to Accidentally Dating a Superhero
by Alex Gabriel
2014

This is such an amazingly delightful and hilarious book! I highly recommend it! It had me chortling to myself. It also had so many scenes that I would have expected to hit my second-hand-embarrassment squick but instead sailed right past it with a derogatory look of: don’t expect these characters to be embarrassed by anything they do or allow anyone else to be embarrassed on their behalf. They are just fine with rolling with the situations.

And as a warning to Anna: it does have graphic sex scenes, that are not only graphic but also involve significant character development and plot progression so they can’t just be skipped.

This is the world of superheroes at it’s best: the superhero world of Saturday morning cartoons where the good guys win but the bad guys get away and no one is ever permanently harmed. The drama is high, the philosophy is pointed, and the aesthetics are amazing.

It also reminds me a bit of The Rest of Us Just Live Here since Pat, our main character who does the occasional part-time duty as a minion to whatever supervillain is currently making a bid for world domination, is mostly a college student who loves his major and has a pretty decent part-time job. He’s just so irrepressible and he loves his mom and dad and his sisters and his studies to be an urban developer and even being a minion is often annoying but sometimes fun and just part of life.

And Nicholas Andersen is the Tony Stark / Bruce Wayne of this world: the billionaire philanthropist tech-genius with awkward social skills who starts out thinking that Pat is the prostitute he requested sent up. (And Pat isn’t about to say “no” to sex with a hot guy who apparently wants to have sex with him.) And then life happens and it is all so ludicrously delightful and I love it!

stillwatersStill Waters
by Alex Gabriel
2015

As soon as I finished “Love for the Cold Blooded” I went to check out the author’s page for more. Sadly, there’s not much else and nothing in the last three years, but this novella is still really good.

It packs a fascinating amount of world-building around a very character-driven fantasy plot. Anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy knows that it comes in a wide range of styles: from dark/gritty/game-of-thrones-esque to light/fluffy/romcom-esque. Are werewolves vicious slavering creatures going on murderous rampages or are they people who turn into puppies? In this story, they are both! Because the background premise is that there are rips that will occasionally allow people from one world to pass into a different world.

Drakjan, going by Julian, is one such individual. The world he’s from is a dark and dangerous fantasy world in which vicious creatures fight and kill and the world he’s now in is a softer fantasy world in which those same fantasy creatures share borders and have council meetings and are shocked when one of their own is murdered!

One of the great things about this book is Drakjan’s perspective because the whole world is so foreign to him even after  he’s settled in to the periphery of life in the new world, giving up the joy of killing for the pleasure of peace. But he’s still very much an outsider looking in, not quite understanding how (or even why) to fit in with the rest of the society.

The plot happens when someone else comes through another rip. (Two someones actually: a love-interest and a plot-point.) The plot is extremely straight forward but the characters and the world building are amazing and it’s just as well that the plot doesn’t get in the way of that. I would love to read more but it’s also self-contained as is.