Westerfeld’s wildly inventive reworking of the First World War heats up as the Germans and English enter into open hostilities, bio-engineered creatures against mechanical marvels. Aboard the English airship Leviathan, Midshipman Deryn Sharp (secretly a girl) and Alek (Austrian Prince in exile) have forged a wary friendship, one that will be tested as they arrive in intrigue-laden Istanbul, where both sides jockey for influence and revolution is in the air. It’s nonstop adventure in the skies and seas, with steampunk war machines, living weapons, derring-do and swashbuckling a’plenty. Keith Thompson’s gorgeous illustrations further bring this amazing world to life, making this a definite don’t-miss.
Archive for category Historical
It’s 1913, and in the small crossroads town of Arcane, Missouri, anything can happen. When a traveling medicine show stops for repairs, bringing with it all manner of bizarre technological contraptions and dubious cures, Natalie Minks is alternately fascinated and worried. Even at a glance, she knows something’s not right with Dr. Limberleg and his companions. What she discovers will strike at the very heart and soul of her beloved home, leading an epic struggle for survival. A historical steampunk fantasy drawing inspiration from trickster tales, deals with the devil, and other folklore, this book’s crammed full of nifty ideas and awesome moments. Unique and wonderful, featuring a feisty, resourceful heroine, this book’s definitely a don’t-miss under any circumstances.
When Wolf runs away from the monastery he’s called home for years in search of a more fulfilling life, he finds more than he bargained for in the forms of a feral elf-child and a local lord driven by heartbreak, loss and ambition. Taken into service by Lord Hugo of the Red Mound, Wolf befriends his stubborn, spirited daughter, Nest, and takes on the task of civilizing the elf. But what does Hugo want with the elf, and what sort of trouble will arise as a result of his quest? Set in a long-ago Wales where magic and superstition still hold power, this book draws on traditional fairy tales and religious beliefs to tell a creepy, intriguing story where anything is possible.
Miss Alexia Tarabotti is not your average young lady. At twenty-six and unmarried, her chances of finding a prospective husband are almost nil. Worse still, she’s half-Italian and her coloring quite definitely takes after that side of the family. Olive skin is -so- out, after all. Worst of all, she has no soul. As a so-called, and extraordinarily rare, preternatural, she can negate the supernatural qualities of werewolves and vampires with but a touch, a fact she keeps to herself as much as possible. After all, proper ladies don’t go around touching the undead willy-nilly, no matter how accepted they are in British society.
When a strange vampire attacks Alexia at a party, she quite sensibly defends herself, accidentally staking the vampire in the process. The ensuing mess brings her into contact with Lord Maccon, a Scottish werewolf who works for the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, who’s had a bone to pick with Miss Tarabotti ever since a certain incident involving a hedgehog. This sets off a bizarre and unconventional series of events involving Alexia, Lord Maccon, an American scientist, and the so-very-flamboyant vampire Lord Akeldama. It seems that packless werewolves and solitary vampires have been disappearing, while fledging vampires are turning up with disturbing frequency, their origins a mystery. When people try to kidnap Alexia, Lord Maccon decides to see to her protection personally. But can they stop arguing long enough to figure out what’s going on? And at what point will propriety be thrown out the window in favor of expediency?
Soulless is charming, whimsical, and splendid. Part comedy of manners, part Regency send-up, part urbane fantasy, part alternate history, part steampunk, it’s a beautiful blending of disparate elements that’s bound to appeal to a wide range of readers. With its wry, tongue-in-cheek tone and a thoroughly plausible worldview, it’s easy to fall into the story and get swept up in the action. Alexia Tarabotti is a heroine to admire, a saucily-independent, feisty young woman who addresses every situation with her unique mixture of common sense and proper manners. Her constant foil and occasional romantic interest, Lord Maccon, is a gentleman and a werewolf, and it’s no wonder that opposites attract and sparks fly every time they’re together. (Honestly? Miss Tarabotti and Lord Maccon are one of the cutest, most adorable, most entertaining, most natural couples I’ve seen in a long time, and their interactions fill me with a glee bordering on guilty pleasure.) Lord Akeldama makes for one heck of a memorable supporting character, stealing every scene he’s in with a colorful swish that would be the envy of any drag queen, while still maintaining that immortal presence one expects of a centuries-old vampire.
This book overflows with a sense of wonder and unapologetic playfulness, starting with the first page (…she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire…) and continuing right up to the very end. In lesser hands, the clever banter and self-aware tone could have been cutesy, twee, or just plain groan-inducing; Gail Carriger rises above those pitfalls to give us something rich and delightful and thoroughly appealing. I simply must insist upon more, and the sooner the better.
In Crosspointe, there’s no odder group of friends than the trio of Ryland, Shaye, and Fairlie. Ryland, son of Crosspointe’s king, has spent a lifetime trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and would do anything for king and country. Sheye, scion of the powerful Weverton family, is a majicar, capable of weaving magic to great effect. However, he’s no friend of the crown or what it represents. Fairlie has dedicated her life to shaping metal and creating works of art. And even as she achieves her life’s dream of becoming a master in the Metalsguild, she realizes her heart may have room for more than just metal, when Sheye finally admits his love for her.
And then they are betrayed, the trio’s friendship irrevocably destroyed. The king has ordered his son to commit an unthinkable, unforgivable crime in service to Crosspointe, and that one act sets off a chain of cataclysmic events that will reshape Crosspointe forever. The crown needs a majicar capable of shaping the deadly sylveth into compasses, in order to let ships safely navigate the Inland Sea and maintain the web of trade and treaties. But to create such a majicar, someone must be transformed, torn apart and reshaped by sylveth itself. That someone would never be human again. And sources indicate that Fairlie might just be the perfect candidate. But Ryland could never have predicted the consequences that arise as a result of imprisoning Sheye and transforming Fairlie. Now all of Crosspointe will pay in blood and tears, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what’ll be left standing afterwards.
Wow. Diana Pharaoh Francis really kicks over the apple cart in this, the third book of the Crosspointe series. Here we see the desperate lengths to which some people will go in order to achieve their supposedly noble ends, and we see the true cost of politics in Crosspointe. We see how people act with what they consider to be the best of intentions, knowing full well what they’ll endure as a result, and it’s not pretty. We see what some will do for love, and others for revenge, and it’s some pretty powerful storytelling. I was already a fan of the Crosspointe setting; it’s memorable and unique, with its nautical bent, political entanglements and pseudo-Victorian trappings, and we get to see even more of its darker side here. Likewise, the insights we’re granted into the true nature of majicars, sylveth, and the local gods really help to flesh out aspects previously left vague.
Just like in previous books of the series, Francis isn’t afraid to put her characters through the wringer, subjecting them to some intense experiences and trials by fire. I really found myself rooting for Fairlie and Sheye as, together and separately, they dealt with the problems at hand. Of course, there are some pretty cool and strange supporting characters present, one of whom ties this book in to events from The Black Ship. The more we see, the more it’s evident that the world of Crosspointe isn’t quite as easy to explain or understand as originally assumed. No, we’ve seen a small portion of a larger and wilder world. After what happens here, it’s clear that Francis has some big plans for her world, and I can’t wait to see what sort of consequences ripple out in books to come. Kudos to the author for creating an original fantasy setting, and using it to tell a series of stand-alone books that nevertheless build upon one another. It’s neither episodic nor epic, if that makes sense, and it comes as a breath of fresh air. With The Turning Tide, as with the other Crosspointe books, you’re getting a deftly-woven mixture of adventure, intrigue, magic and romance, and it’s hard to ask for much more. Don’t let the tide go out on this one.
For probationary Compliance Officer Gerald Dunwoody of the Ottosland Department of Thaumaturgy, it was supposed to be a routine safety inspection. You know, nose around a little, find out why the Stuttley’s Superior Staff factory hadn’t been submitting their paperwork properly, finish the report and go home. Nothing was supposed to go wrong.
One major accident and a blown-up factory later, Gerald Dunwoody’s out on his rear and out of a job. Desperate for work – not much call for a Third Grade wizard who can’t hold a job and who gets involved in scandals of this magnitude – he decides to get out of the country for a while. It seems the distant kingdom of New Ottosland is in need of a court wizard and they’re not terribly picky in the matter. So off Gerald goes, to a kingdom left behind by time and Tradition, situated in the middle of nowhere and nearly broke courtesy of economic sanctions brought on by their desert neighbors. At first, it seems like the perfect place to lay low and wait until things blow over at home, with the added bonus of making his resume look good.
Unfortunately, New Ottosland is anything but perfect. Princess Melissande is a frumpy, perpetually-stressed woman pressed into service as the Prime Minister. Prince Rupert is a blithering idiot who prefers butterflies to people. And King Lional the Forty-Third is ambitious, cunning, ruthless, and dangerous. Before he realizes just how deep he’s gotten himself, Gerald’s thoroughly entangled in Lional’s plans for a greater, grander New Ottosland, and getting out may just kill him. To complicate matters beyond any hope of redemption, it seems that Gerald’s accident at Stuttley’s has left him in possession of more power than he dreamed possible. Together with Melissande, his best friend (and magical genius) Monk Markham, and a rather obnoxious talking bird named Reg, Gerald Dunwoody will save New Ottosland … but at what price? And can one ever go back to a normal life after this sort of thing?
The Accidental Sorcerer is the first book in K.E. Mills’ (better known as Karen Miller) new trilogy, Rogue Agent, and it’s quite a change from her usual fantasy epics. It’s a pseudo-modern semi-comic fantasy set in a world greatly reminiscent of our own, circa the post-Industrial Revolution, British Colonial era. Mills takes enough liberties with the setting to make it hard to narrow it down precisely, but that’s the vibe I got from the book, with much of the action taking place in New Ottosland, a former colony situated in an oasis located in the middle of a desert. There’s evidence of some modern technology, such as cars and electricity, but magic is widespread and built into the very fabric of this world’s infrastructure. The end result is an immensely fascinating, notably different setting that’s full of story potential, and I definitely want to see it explored in more depth. There’s just not enough of this sort of thing, semi-historical industrialized fantasy, and Mills pulls it off quite nicely.
As mentioned above, this book is laced with humor, a dry sort of wit that sneaks around and insinuates itself when least expected. Occasionally, it shows up in the sheer absurdity of some situations, but mostly it manifests in the lightning-quick repartee of the main characters as they react to their surroundings and one another with a growing urgency and shrillness, while things collapse around them. Gerald and Reg have a great dynamic – he’s a bumbling sorcerer in over his head, she’s a several hundred year old talking bird with an opinion for every occasion – and together, they make a heck of a team. Someone better versed in British humor and sitcoms – the author’s a Canadian-born Australian – would likely be familiar with this sort of thing, but I’m finding it all quite new and extremely entertaining. Toss in the practical Princess Melissande and the perpetually-distracted Prince Rupert, and finish it all off with King Lional, a terrifyingly nasty piece of work, and you have a memorable cast of characters.
The plot itself moves along rather quickly – I found myself devouring this 500+ page book in two days – but it’s highly enjoyable. It catches you with an explosive beginning, and then moves on inexorably as Gerald gets wrapped up in things beyond his control and a few attendant mysteries, and then takes a real turn for the serious about two thirds of the way in. And by serious, I mean that things get ugly with regards to evil plots, and the abuse of Our Hero. And once things hit that point, there’s no stopping.
I was a little hit-and-miss when it came to Karen Miller’s other books – The Kingbreaker, Kingmaker duology was good but not great – but with this series, I’m absolutely hooked, and will be looking for the rest of the series as it comes out. For something that’s not just your average, ordinary, everyday epic American fantasy, you could do worse than to check out The Accidental Sorcerer.
Lucy Trenton leads a complicated life. A member of the Rampling family, which rules the powerful harbor city of Crosspointe, she works as a customs inspector, responsible for overseeing so much of the trade which flows through the city. What very few people know, however, is that she can actually sense majick in its various forms, an ability which earned her distrust and mockery as a child. What no one (or so she thinks) knows is that Lucy has accumulated a small collection of so-called “true ciphers,” dangerous majickal artifacts whose possession is strictly illegal. And then, after one fateful day, everything changes. First, a cipher attaches itself to her arm. Invisible to everyone but her, unable to be removed, chances are good it’ll kill her, sooner or later. And then the first of several letters shows up, claiming to know all about Lucy’s secret collection and threatening to reveal this information to the public if she doesn’t betray the trust placed in her as a customs inspector.
Under a likely death sentence, and swayed by the blackmail, Lucy has no choice but to make the wrong choice, no matter which way she turns. Her life begins to spiral out of control, faster and faster, and even her friends and family begin to suffer. Worse, one of the only people Lucy can count upon now is Captain Marten Thorpe, a roguish man whose gambling debts have sent him down a self-destructive path partially orchestrated by a ruthless conspiracy. The two will have to work together if they want to unravel the true nature of a threat, not just to themselves, but all Crosspointe. And just what’s the story behind Lucy’s cipher, anyway?
The Cipher is the first in a fascinating new series by Diana Pharoah Francis, and so far, it’s shaping up to be a remarkably intriguing twist on the usual fantasy setting. Instead of hewing to the medievalesque timeframe most fantasies find most comfortable, Crosspointe seems to take its inspiration from the heyday of the British Empire, circa the 19th Century (though history not being my strongest point, I may be a little off, here), and more importantly, from a time when trading ships and merchant vessels made up a vast part of a global economy. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and a setting that seems ripe for exploration. Francis throws in a healthy dose of manipulation, corruption, intrigue, and politics to go with the surface trappings, presenting an environment always on the verge of explosive, unpleasant change. Add to that the enemies amassing at the metaphorical gates, both inside and outside of Crosspointe, and you have plenty of fodder for future volumes in the series.
The characters are definitely complicated and full of morally grey areas: Lucy’s responsible for upholding the law, yet breaks it on a regular basis, while Marten Thorpe’s a despicably flawed man whose weaknesses affect the people around him as much as they do himself. Lucy’s best friend is a potentially ruthless killer playacting at being a respectable woman of business, and one of Marten’s best friends is an unregistered majicker in a society where all majick practioners are required to register and work part-time for the government. They’re not the most heroic of people, but separate and together, they provide an interesting dynamic, especially as Lucy and Marten get to know each other better . . . perhaps a little too well.
There’s actually a lot going on in this book, with several deep-layered plots weaving in and out, and it all culminates in an epic manner, laying down a status quo which will make the next book in the series, The Black Ship, all the more interesting. I’ll certainly be looking forward to it, that’s for sure, if just to see what happens next in the tale of Lucy Trenton and Marten Thorpe. This is definitely a fantasy to look out for.
Baltimore: or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (Bantam Spectra, 2007)
In the darkest days of World War I, Lord Henry Baltimore, then a Captain in the English Army, watches his men fall in battle. Himself injured, he barely fights off a nocturnal predator, and in doing so, unleashes the unholy wrath of a vampire, and sparks a disturbing plague across Europe.
Years later, as the plague ravishes the continent, three of Baltimore’s closest allies — Captain Demetrius Aischros, Doctor Lemuel Rose, and Mister Thomas Childres, Junior — are summoned to a lonely, foreboding inn where they are to await Baltimore’s arrival. There, surrounded by the stench of death and those waiting to die, the three men trade stories. One by one, they fill in the vital gaps in Baltimore’s history, each man having encountered Baltimore at some point or another, quickly realizing that their old friend and colleague has changed, and not for the better. One by one, they relate eerie stories of their encounters with the horrific and the supernatural, the experiences which made them ready to believe Baltimore’s grim story of vampires and evil stalking humanity. And then, as they learn more of Baltimore’s obsession and hopeless quest to rid the world of the vampire which cursed him, they’re drawn into an epic struggle for survival, one which will leave them changed forever.
Baltimore is a spooky, atmospheric, Gothic series of interwoven tales that’s sure to make an impression upon the reader. From the nightmarish, disjointed beginning among the bloodsoaked trenches of World War I, to an inn haunted by the barely living, to the violent, heartbreaking conclusion, it paints a gruesome picture of the darker corners of the world. It actually invokes an old, time-honored storytelling convention, that of the group of people sitting around swapping their own tales, something which could easily become tiresome, were it not handled by such a skilled creative team. Sin trees, evil giant puppets, vampires, lake-dwelling abominations, a disgraced priest, cursed soldiers and vengeful spirits all have their parts to play here, interspersed with imagery and quotations drawn from the titular fairy tale, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”
At first, I was dubious about this book. Christopher Golden is an excellent writer with a mastery of dark fantasy and horror, while Mike Mignola, best known for his Hellboy comics, has a unique visual style, but this seemed to be something of an experiment for them both. The prologue, in which Baltimore meets his supernatural nemesis, is not the easiest part of the book to get through, but upon reflection, it really does capture the bloody, vicious, haunting moment in style. However, it was my biggest stumbling block in getting into the story. Once we were introduced to the Surgeon, the Sailor, and the Soldier (as the chapter headings address the three) and their stories were allowed to unfold, I was swiftly drawn into the narrative. Each man gets two stories: one dealing with his experiences with Baltimore, the other with a previous encounter with the supernatural, and in that manner, I was reminded of a bizarre modern-day invocation of the Canterbury Tales. The stories are imaginative, memorable, and disturbing, as the men speak of the evils they’ve survived (for there’s very little vanquishing to be found here), and drawn from from various cultural influences to make for a wide-ranging tapestry. Baltimore’s own narrative, told in the form of diary entries, is just as chilling in its own way, as he attempts to rid the world of vampires. Festooned with guns and swords and other weapons, his wooden leg covered with nails to symbolize his victories to date, he’s an ominous, imposing hero, a vampire hunter who would make one hell of a visual for a film or animated feature, especially when given the opportunity to cut loose in battle.
Mignola’s artwork is liberally splashed across the pages throughout the book. It’s a unique visual style, moody and bleak, relying on heavy use of shadows to suggest, rather than show through details. I wish there had been more full-page pieces, for many of the smaller images which serve to amplify the words on the page are simply too small, and don’t satisfy the imagination like the larger ones do. One full-page depiction of Baltimore himself in shadow is quite stunning indeed.
Golden and Mignola make a good team, as witnessed by their previous collaborations (Golden’s written a few Hellboy novels) and Baltimore is certainly a success for them both. It may have its flaws, but all in all, once I got into it, I couldn’t stop reading, eager to find out what manner of twisted horror would be thrown at the characters next, and whether they’d see a victory over the vampires terrorizing the world. All I can say that for these men, a happily ever after isn’t entirely on the books, even if they do survive the final encounter. So despite my initial hesitations regarding this book, I’m happy to say that Baltimore is well worth checking out, especially if you happen to like your stories dark, disturbing, and Gothic.
Shards, by Bruce Baugh (White Wolf, 2002)
Shadows, by Bruce Baugh (White Wolf, 2002)
Sacrifices, by Bruce Baugh, (White Wolf, 2002)
The Madness of Priests, by Philippe Boulle (White Wolf, 2003)
Agyar, by Steven Brust (Tor, 1993)
Darkest Heart, by Nancy A. Collins (White Wolf, 2002)
Lady Crymsyn, P.N. Elrod (Ace, 2000)
Cold Streets, by P.N. Elrod (Ace, 2003)
Dhampir, by Barb and J.C. Hendee, (Roc, 2003)
The Ultimate Dracula, edited by Byron Priess (iBooks, 2003)
The Best of Dreams of Decadence, edited by Angela Kessler (Roc, 2003)
As I write this, it’s late April, and in the U.S., Tax Season has once again passed. And perhaps coincidentally, that got me to thinking about a different, more classical, sort of bloodsucker. Looking around my desk, I realized that somehow, a few vampire books had piled up. I swear, they probably bite other books and turn them into vampires when I’m not looking. I can see it now. In the dead of night, when I’m upstairs sleeping the sleep of the innocent and dreaming of those halcyon days when I read without reviewing, as a simple shaft of moonlight arcs over my desk, the books … come to life. They sprout fangs and bat wings, and take to the ceiling. There, they confer in the sound of rustling pages. Finally, without warning, one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books dives down, seizing some poor misshelved Tolkein ripoff, and drinking deep of its ink. In the morning, the book is gone, but in its place sits another vampire novel, freshly reborn….
Pardon me. I got carried away. The fact remains, I found, without even trying, no less than eleven vampire novels of assorted inspirations and lineages, and thought it might be prudent to “deal” with them all at once, before they could convert any more hapless romances or reference books to their evil cause. And believe me, they do come from a variety of sources. Almost half of the list were published by White Wolf, which made its name for itself as a gaming studio with the popular Vampire: The Masquerade. Of these, three books are inspired by the main line, and another by its spinoff, Victorian Age Vampire. Another two books come from P.N. Elrod’s long-running Vampire Files series, about 1930′s-era private investigator-turned-vampire-turned-nightclub owner Jack Fleming. To round the list out, there’s one not-so-traditional fantasy, and a pair of anthologies. All in all, it’s a nice roundup. And on with the blood-sucking show.
In Lady Crymsyn, the eighth book in P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files series, the year is 1937, and Chicago’s a dangerous place to live. If you don’t believe it, ask Jack Fleming, vampire private investigator. Thanks to some “business” in previous books, he’s come into enough money to finally open up that nightclub he’s always dreamed of. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, when, during the remodeling of the speakeasy he’s acquired, a body is discovered in the basement. A body in a distinctive red dress, handcuffed and walled up. Whoever this woman was, whatever happened to bring her to this place, she clearly died horribly. And Jack Fleming, P.I., vampire, and knight in tarnished armor, dedicates himself to solving the mystery of the woman. Who she was, who killed her, and why. It’ll take all of his powers and wits to solve a mystery that’s been closed (or walled away) for years, especially in a city like Chicago, which already has its fair share of skeletons in the closet. Good thing Jack’s got friends. He’ll need them. Toss in a pesky ghost, trouble with the mobs (as usual) and even a vampire may find himself in danger.
In Cold Streets, Jack’s back and business is booming at his nightclub. Thanks to some influential friends in the mob business, and his own vampiric powers of persuasion, he’s turned it into a place to be proud of, where everyone’s happy and the drinks are flowing. Unfortunately, that white knight streak of his is about to get him in trouble. When he helps to foil a kidnapping, he becomes the target of a nasty blackmail attempt, by someone willing to expose his secret to the world. Meanwhile, a new player from New York’s in town to take over for Jack’s friend, Gordy, who runs the local mob. “Hog” Bristow has no respect for the niceties of negotiation, or for the supposed neutrality of Lady Crymsyn. Between blackmail and gunfire, Jack and his partner, Escott, will be working overtime. But will Jack lose his grip on humanity once and for all, when things turn ugly?
Elrod certainly has an interesting thing going here. I’m reminded a bit of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, in that the main character is a supernaturally-empowered P.I. with too much honor and not enough common sense for his own good. The books are atmospheric, and she really makes the time period and setting of late ’30s Chicago come alive, playing up the culture and historical backdrop. However, while the main character might be a vampire, it doesn’t really give off that vampire vibe. Jack wholeheartedly uses his powers to vanish, and to hypnotize, and even play around with strength and speed, but he has too much of a grip on his human self. There are times when he feels more like a mortal with special powers, than a romantic, bloodsucking figure of the night. I’m not so sure that the juxtaposition really works with him. He does hardboiled detective wonderfully, Jack does, but he doesn’t make the most intriguing of vampires.
It’s a shame I’m dissatisfied with that aspect of the series, because the two books I’ve read were compelling and complex, and quite enjoyable. They’re about 95% accessible to readers who haven’t seen the first seven or so in the series, which is good since it’s not easy to find the earlier books in the stores I’ve checked. Admittedly, there are interpersonal relationships, and events early on that influence how things unfold now, but the astute reader will catch up in no time. So all in all, Lady Crymsyn and Cold Streets are both wonderfully-written, dark (even noir) novels that are worth checking out if you like the supernatural P.I. subgenre (like I do), but as vampire novels, they come off a little weak in comparison to some of the others on my list.
Where the Jack Fleming books come off as a bit too familiar in terms of the vampire main character, Nancy Collin’s Darkest Heart, the newest Sonja Blue novel, treasts the vampire as something truly alien and monstrous. Sonja Blue is an unwilling vampire, possessed by a creature she calls “The Other”, a bloodthirsty beast that tears apart its prey, and does horrible things in the name of existence. Sonja exists in a world of restraint and self-loathing, slaying her fellow vampires and denying The Other its urges as best she can. Her world is a darkly supernatural funhouse, with demons and werewolves and much, much worse dwelling in the shadows.
For the sake of love and her humanity, Sonja is willing to die. But she’s not that lucky. Her attempt to chain The Other once and for all is, ultimately, a failure, and Sonja is forced to walk once more. There’s another vampire hunter out there, and his path is set to cross hers. Together, they’ll take on an ancient vampire and his assorted dark minions, unholy abominations and things that shouldn’t exist. They’ll challenge the boundaries of life and death, and Sonja will risk everything to atone for her mistakes.
Nancy Collins has the atmosphere down pat, and she captures the horrifying, addictively sensual, violent, ugly, Goth-romantic aspect of the vampire mythos with sadistic glee, tormenting the characters until they beg for mercy. Darkest Heart is morbidly fascinating, like an auto accident, or a gunshot wound on the news. I couldn’t put it down. This is hardcore vampire with all the blood and guts and nastiness you could ever want.
How long can you go with a vampiric protagonist without actually saying as much? How about an entire book? That’s what Steven Brust as much as does in Agyar, a skillfully-woven tale of passion, obsession, and desire that makes me wish I hadn’t already used my quota of the word “dark”. Agyar (he goes by a number of names, but this is his most common) is a drifter, a wanderer, a mysterious stranger who takes up residence in a haunted house in an Ohio college town. His story unfolds slowly, blossoming like some midnight flower, and we see firsthand the events that cause his well-ordered life to spiral into chaos. All for the sake of a woman, one might say. When he takes the wrong woman as a lover and a vessel from which to drink, he soon discovers that he’s brought new enemies into his life. What will Agyar do to protect himself, and to protect the girl he cares for? Ah, but that would be telling. The plot is deceptively simple, the writing evocative and sharp, and the characters fascinating. Agyar is almost the perfect “unvampire” novel, avoiding the term as much as it does, and conjuring up enough images to let the reader draw their own conclusions. This is definitely one of Brust’s best works, a rare departure from the more traditional fantasy (can anyone call the Taltos series traditional?) into the realm of horror. It’s hard to go into more detail without spoiling something vital. However, he manages to obtain a splendid blend of mystery and horror and romance, playing on the allure of the unknown and the magic of the concept. Try this one on the people who claim they don’t like vampires, and see what they say afterwards.
Shadows, Shards, and Sacrifices make up the Clan Lasombra trilogy, based on White Wolf’s flagship game, Vampire: The Masquerade. To give you some backstory, the first murderer (Caine) was also the first vampire, cursed by God. All vampires can trace themselves back to him, though they divide themselves into Clans, each one having shared strengths and weaknesses, all but a few exceptions tracing their lineage back to the so-called Third Generation. The older the vampire, the more powerful and more inhuman they’ve become. Furthermore, the majority are associated with one of two societies: the Camarilla (who advocate humanity’s ignorance) and the Sabbat (who advocate humanity’s enslavement). Admittedly, those viewpoints are rather simplified. As it stands, Vampire tried to balance the political mechinations of the older vampires, with the struggle to retain the humanity of the younger ones.
A few years back, White Wolf released their Clan Novels series, a thirteen book series that brought upheaval to their setting. Spinning out of this is Clan Trilogy: Lasombra, which features one of the pivotal characters from the first series, Lucita, a thousand-year-old member of Clan Lasombra, whose members control and have an affinity for shadows, and who act as a mainstay of the Sabbat. At long last, Lucita is free of her powerful sire, the inhuman vampire known as Moncada. For her, it’s a blessed release. For the rest of her Clan, it’s trouble waiting to happen. They’ll do anything to find and eliminate the threat they percieve her as. But other, darker, deadlier plans are afoot in the Lasombra, including an attempt to resurrect their long-dead founder and namesake, a creature of unimaginable power and appetite which could destroy them all before turning them into dinner.
The Clan Lasombra trilogy has some good things, and some bad things, going for it. On the positive side, Bruce Baugh really does capture the inhumanity and the complex plotting of these immortal creatures. He also has the setting down pat, able to produce a multi-layered, intriguing tale set in the World of Darkness. This series, and the setting, really do play up the bizarre nature and stranger powers of the vampires, as well as the detachment they begin to feel as their affinity for humanity slips away over centuries or millenia, and their slow evolution into something far more terrifying. As well, we see what sort of mechinations and plots can come about when one has eternity to plan and the patience to outlive his enemies. On the down side, I felt that this series wasn’t the best one for newcomers to the setting to start with. Not only does the trilogy spin out of another series, but it seems to assume at least a passing familiarity with the source material. I hadn’t read the Clan Novel: Lasombra, and so felt a little behind the times for this, despite the promising premise and Baugh’s obvious skills. The Clan Lasombra trilogy is moody and complex, and a great series for those already well-versed with the World of Darkness, but it’s not one I’d choose to initiate non-fans with.
On the other hand, there’s the second book in the Victorian Age Vampire trilogy, The Madness of Priests by Philippe Boulle. Continuing the bizarre adventures of Regina Blake as she attempts to save her mother from a dangerous society of vampiric blood sorcerers, this book sees Regina and her mentor, Victoria Ash, descend further into a world of hidden sins and private damnations. Vampires are real, and they mimic the surface world with a mock court, paying homage to a Prince of their very own, tugging the strings of mortal society with an eye towards preserving their own existence, and making it more comfortable. Secret societies abound in this last years of the 19th Century, not all of them run by humans. Caught up in all of this are Regina’s father, and her fiancee, who may already have been lost to the seductive schemes of one such group. Little does Regina know the true purpose her mother, once thought dead, now known to be entrapped by the vampires known as the Order of Tremere, has been groomed for. When Regina stumbles across a vampiric religious fanatic, the charismatic Father Anatole, her quest could end prematurely.
Even someone not familiar with the World of Darkness setting can pick up on the material in no time, here. Even though we’re treated to a much more in-depth study of vampiric society, it’s generally done with one of a few outsiders, including Regina, as the point of view characters. Through her eyes, it’s all a little stranger and more exotic, secrets of the Victorian age hidden behind a half-drawn curtain. It helps to start with the first in the trilogy, A Morbid Initiation, but even so, this is a nicely accessible book. It invokes a number of Victorian themes, including repressed eroticism, the fascination with the occult, the fascination with farflung lands like Egypt or India, and of course, that day/night dichotomy. Anyone who likes their vampires “classic” will probably get a kick out of this series.
Another recent find, Dhampir by Barb and J.C. Hendee, is interesting for a rather different take on the vampire mythos, as well as for translating them over to a pure fantasy setting. For some reason, vampires work best when posed against the modern world, so it’s always disconcerting to see them in a fantasy or even science fiction world. In this case, it seems to work.
Magiere and her partner, the half-elf Leesil, wander the land, acting as vampire slayers for hire, taking whatever the grateful villagers can afford to pay her in exchange for ridding them of the nocturnal horrors that stalk them. However, what no one realizes is that for all the flash and show and effort, Magiere and Leesil are really, quite simply, running a con game. There are no vampires. There’s only Magiere, Leesil, and their canine companion, Chap. But after years of the game, Magiere’s ready to settle down, buy a tavern, and live an honest life for once. Leesil, less thrifty, is none too pleased by this, but would rather stay with his only friend than leave her. So it’s off to the city of Miiska, and to that honest life.
Small problem. Miiska is home to a pack of powerful vampires, and they’re definitely unhappy to have a vampire slayer moving into town. Magiere will have to live up to the reputation she falsely created, master abilities she never knew she possessed, and tap into her heritage to destroy the monsters of Miiska. Luckily, she has Leesil, whose own history is shadowed and more dangerous then he ever let on, and Chap, who’s more than a mere dog, to back her up. As well, there’s a stranger who knows more about Magiere than she herself does, and he has his own agenda for vampires and slayer alike.
Dhampir is a clever and well-told tale that has more than a few twists, the least of which is the one spoiled above. Set up to allow sequels, it’s still a great stand-alone that finds a fairly new way to approach vampires in a believable fantasy world that oozes with atmosphere and begs for more exploration. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m hoping we’ll see more from the Hendees soon.
If there was a championship title bout among vampires, then the undisputed champion through sheer popularity, staying power, number of interpretations, and cultural recognition would clearly be Dracula. That’s why it’s hardly surprising to see The Ultimate Dracula, an anthology released by iBooks and originally published in 1991. In this collection, Dracula and his legend are retold and reinterpreted by nineteen masters of the genre. Notables include Anne Rice, Philip Jose Farmer, Dan Simmons, Ed Gorman, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and John Gregory Betancourt. Leonard Wolf’s insightful and information introduction, and a selected filmography detailing some of the best or more noteworthy versions of Dracula to hit the silver screen, are added bonuses for the anthology. Though every anthology is naturally touch and go, hit and miss, according to individual tastes, this particular collection has a rather nice number of standout talents, and enough variety among authors and stories to appeal to almost any fan of the vampire genre. Noteworthy stories, in my mind, include Edward Hoch’s chillingly historic “Dracula 1944″, which has the Lord of the Vampires visiting a Nazi work camp during the later part of World War II, and Heather Graham’s fang-in-cheek “The Vampire In His Closet”, where a writer goes looking for inspiration. These stories represent the opposite ends of the thematic and mood spectrum one’ll find in The Ultimate Dracula.
Last, but certainly not least, in this parade of the damned, is The Best of Dreams of Decadence. Dreams of Decadence is a vampire-only poetry and fiction magazine that’s been around for the better part opf a decade, acting as one of the flagship titles for DNA Publications, which also owns Weird Tales. Over the years, it’s changed size and format, always getting larger and better, and for a while it routinely sold out through the Hot Topics chain of ‘trend’ stores, until Hot Topics themselves started moving away from the Gothic focus. Collected here are some of the very best of a consistently quality vampire magazine, which is, if not one of a kind, at least one of the more persistent and notable of its kind. Authors represented include Sarah A. Hoyt, Sharon Lee, Wendy Rathbone, Laura Anne Gilman, Tippi N. Blevins, Tanith Lee, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Josepha Sherman, Brian Stableford, and DNA Publications publisher Warren Lapine. All in all, several dozen stories and poems are presented, in most cases reprinted for the very first time, and they really do represent the vast potential of the vampire genre. If you like vampires, and you like variety, this collection may be right up your alley. It’s got something for everyone, and it proves there’s still way too much life left in an undead field.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear my books calling. They demand … fresh victims.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a young woman gave up a chance at immortality to remain with her family. On that day, she vowed that should any of her descendants ever show the right talents, she’d do whatever it took to give them that chance at immortality. Years later, it looks like the stars have aligned again….
Xiao Yen is a most unconventional young woman, one who flouts society’s unwritten rules to study as a paper mage, encouraged by her aunt Mei-Mei (who once loved an immortal) and ridiculed by other family and neighbors alike. She has talent aplenty, able to breathe life into delicate paper creations, to summon cranes and tigers, crabs and snakes, turning the art of origami into magic. However, she has to prove herself time and again to teachers, fellow students, family, and herself. And even when she graduates, the tests are nowhere near over. In fact, they’ve only just begun. Her very first job, as a caravan guard, turns unpredictable and deadly when she meets a goddess, and only Xiao Yen’s powers and cleverness can change the very world around her. Can Xiao Yen free one of the gods from the grip of a cruel tyrant, when her own life and virtue are in danger? Can she forge an alliance with the unpredictable Westerners who don’t understand the society they travel in, or the rules they’re breaking? Can she reconcile heart and soul with the dangers and duties ahead? If she doesn’t, the world she’s always known will be destroyed.
Paper Mage is set in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a time when magic was real, gods could walk the earth, and dragons dwelt in the rivers. Well, for us they didn’t, but Leah Cutter conjures up a skillful and authentic atmosphere that mixes the magic and the mundane seamlessly in such a way that we can accept such things. Alternating Xiao Yen’s current adventure with snippets and scenes set during her years of study and training, Paper Mage weaves the two stories together until we understand just who this young woman is, where she came from, and how she became a paper mage against all expectations.
This is a story about duty and obligation, and about finding your own path even if you have to defy everything you were taught to believe in. It’s about overcoming doubt and self-pity and insecurity, and relying on inner strength. Xiao Yen is a likeable and sympathetic character whose very fallability makes her all the more real. Her struggle to understand the part luck and magic play in her life — and in her heart — provides an underlying challenge she has to overcome amidst far greater exterior threats.
Although a lot of people have said a lot of nice things about Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and its sequels, I’ve managed to miss them, mainly because until now, I was never that interested in Chinese myth, as least not in comparison to the more familiar European source materials most Western authors drawn on. Thanks to Paper Mage, that’s changed, and I’ll be looking for Hughart’s work as soon as possible. This is a beautiful, delicate, intricate book, the words origami-folded into one of those flowers that just keeps opening and opening and revealing more of itself with each new day. Skillfully constructed, it manages to tell a highly satisfying story, bringing Xiao Yen’s adventure to a close without closing off room for the sequel I hope is forthcoming.
Paper Mage is the sort of book I can recommend to any fantasy lover without hesitation. Even if you’ve avoided Chinese-inspired stories because they were too alien compared to the European-flavored stuff that fills the shelves, this is a book worth reading. Leah Cutter’s debut novel proves that she has what it takes to become a great new talent.