Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

SapphireFlamesSaphire Flames
(4th book in the Hidden Legacy series)
by Ilona Andrews
2019

This series is something of a guilty pleasure for me and this is the fourth book and the first one about Catalina Baylor, sister to the prior main character, Nevada Baylor.

The reason this is a guilty pleasure is the set up, which is an urban magic world where about 150 years ago, there was a serum developed that gave people magical powers. (Or killed them, or turned them into monsters, but the survivors at this point have magical powers.) And this has created something of a three-tiered society, where there are civilians going about their daily lives with no magic, and living their lives much like anyone else in the modern day; there are magic-users who have a little bit of extra magical skill; and then there are the members of the magical Houses, where families have bred themselves into powerhouses and accumulated vast wealth and are essentially above the law and only counterbalance each other in particularly lethal ways. The bad guys are the people who are trying to destabilize this society.

In any reasonable universe, I would be cheering on the rebels trying to take down this insane society. Instead, I am agog to see what these high society magical killers are doing in their love lives.

The (purported) good guys are the super-handsome, super-wealthy, super-powerful, super-psychopathic killer, scions of these Houses who, despite being psychopaths who barely feel compassion for anyone else, are desperately in love with our main protagonists: lovely ladies who had once thought they were in the middle tier of magical civilians, but discovered their ‘hidden legacy’ that means they are actually extremely powerful and have now formed a House of their own.

Don’t judge me. I love these.

Unfortunately, I don’t love this particular book as much as the previous three (I still like it though!), because the narration keeps on trying to convince me that Catalina and Alessandro are desperately in love even as they deny themselves and each other, despite them having met for all of 15 minutes three years ago when she was 18 years old. He’s a high society heart-throb who she was able to cyberstalk on Instagram (while secretly being a James Bond style assassin maybe?), while there’s hints that he might have actually stalked her for a bit (wealth, power, etc, make all things possible), but the narration keeps on denying that it’s a crush, or simply lust, or obsession. It’s love! Which mostly means that there’s no character arc for them to fall in love because it starts out with the premise that they are both in love already, just pining from afar. My suspension of disbelief, which is normally quite strong, hit a snag on that.

But anyway, the world building is still fascinating and the action sequences are ludicrous and amazing and the dialogue is fun.

What I enjoyed even more is the prequel novella:

DiamondFireDiamond Fire
by Ilona Andrews
2018

This is a good segue between books three and four, as it covers the wedding of Nevada Baylor and Mad Rogan, and sets up Catalina Baylor as a main character who is about to have a lot of changes, and thus book four can happen after the three-year training montage implied at the end of this novella. But in the meantime, the novella itself is fun and a detective story because all of Rogan’s kookie/creepy/lethal relatives show up and then the family wedding tiara gets stolen and shenanigans ensue, with Catalina being conscripted as the detective.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.

 

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

mdzs coverThe Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 
Written by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Translated by: K.san
2018-2019

This is a phenomenon.

I first discovered this because someone I follow on tumblr was posting a steady stream of amazingly beautiful screencaptures of beautiful people and scenes from the show, The Untamed, showing on Netflix.

theuntamed

I convinced Anna to try it out with me, and we were quickly enthralled and had to watch all 50 episodes even though the plot was confusing enough that we had to read the episode summaries before watching each episode and then discuss the events to make sure we understood what was going on.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that we were dealing with names that we weren’t used to, so mostly gave everyone a nickname: Protagonist, Beloved, Beloved’s brother, Protag’s brother, Protag’s sister, Red girl, Red guy, Fan guy, Douche, Psycho, Douche’s Cousin who makes Douche look better in comparison… etc.

It says something about how charismatic the acting is that we were drawn in despite the initial confusion.

So, we watched all 50 episodes and it was done. There was an amazing and beautiful conclusion. But also: what was I going to do with my evenings now????

I mean, the answer is clearly: fanfic. But before that, I discovered was that the tv show was based off a book, Mo Dao Zu Shi, that has a freely available online fan translation, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by K.san, of all 113 chapters plus 13 “extras”.

There is action and adventure and mystery and intrigue and magic and it is so freaking funny. What was funny in the tv show is ten times funnier in the book because we get the internal monologue of our main character. What was subtext in the tv show is very much text in the text. On the other hand, what was known-but-unspoken by the characters in the tv show is dumb-ass boys being absolutely terrible at communication in the book.

Anyway, this is an east asian fantasy world with swords and magic and ghosts and a variety of supernatural spirits that are probably more culturally known in China but easy enough to just go with as an American reader.

The basic premise, is that a much reviled and yet also much respected character was killed some sixteen years before the start, but has been brought back to life as part of a revenge (on someone else) plot. Wei Wuxian finds himself alive again, somewhat insulted that his reputation after death had gotten so bad that someone brought him back to life to kill their family. And things quickly spiral from there, because sixteen years is just long enough for the next generation to start dealing with the world but not enough for the earlier generations to have forgotten Wei Wuxian or moved on.

There’s a lot of flashbacks in the book as we alternate between seeing what’s going on now, with the newly alive Wei Wuxian, and what happened prior to his original death, and how it got the point where he was killed in a coordinated attack. Meanwhile Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi have the most slow-burn, mutual-pining, idiot-boys-cannot-communicate, romance going on in both time periods.

It also starts off quite funny, and gets progressively darker as it goes along, even as it maintains some of the humor, and finally breaks through into lightness again at the end.

All this goes to say, I loved this and I want to recommend it to everyone who thinks they might like this kind of fantasy action shenanigans, but if the genre is not your thing, then I’m not sure if the book is good enough to break through. But maybe give the tv show a try just to see.

However, a couple of warnings:

Warning #1: the translation is very, very good for an amateur, but is rough for a professional. I did find the translator notes quite interesting as she discussed some of the word choices she made. And since she was posting the translated chapters as she went, it’s also interesting to see how the translations changed and improved over the course of the full book.

Warning #2: there is explicit sex near the end of the book and even more in the “extra” chapters after the story arc is complete. The scenes say more to me about the author’s kinks rather than staying true to the characters. Since the kink in question, playing with consent issues, is kind of my anti-kink, even when it’s clearly desired by both, I didn’t care for it and look forward to fanfic fixing that particular aspect.

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???