Wiccan Shadows by Lori J. Schiele

Wiccan Shadows
Lori J. Schiele
ImaJinn Books, 2011
282 pages

I admit that ever since I read Rosemary Edghill’s Bast books I’ve been a fan of fantasy-flavored pagan-ish fiction. And in recent years, as the paranormal romance and related fiction market has exploded, authors have been quite happy to oblige my demand. Of course, the quality has varied: authors who forget that show is better than tell when working pagan material into the story, Mary Sue characters, and just plain bad writing.

Happily, Wiccan Shadows avoids these issues, which is especially impressive considering the author utilizes elements that have often hit trope territory–werewolves, for example, and a Big Bad Evil Thing that the protagonist and her coven must work against magically to save themselves and potentially the world. Schiele takes these elements of her story and weaves them into an enjoyable, well-written, and fast-paced book with just enough romance to add it into that genre, but not so much as to be overwhelming.

The story starts with the violent death of one of the coven members, and immediately we’re introduced to some of the worldbuilding that Schiele has done. Like some authors, she takes some liberties with what magic is and what being Wiccan actually means; one of the characters relies on her “Wiccan senses”, for example, and such things as communication with animal familiars and astral projection are given much more power and omniscience than in real life. It’s not overdone, though, and these things make sense in an alternate reality where spiritual beings can manifest physically. This makes it a good setting for the unfolding story in which the identity of the murderer is ambiguous at best, and the danger to the remaining members of the coven grows with every hour.

The love triangle–such as it is–seems a little forced and predictable, as the main protagonist’s current significant other becomes an increasing asshole, while Shiny New Sexy Guy–who just happens to be a werewolf–and who also happens to be an animal control officer–steps in. There’s no question as to who to root for. Still, the interactions are realistic, and just about everyone knows someone who’s been in each place in that dynamic.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that it made me curious to see how Schiele will develop this series in later books. While I felt there was closure, I got enough of the glimpse of this world to want to visit it again. Well done.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dragon Magick by D.J. Conway

Mystical Dragon Magick: Teachings of the Five Rings
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2007
264 pages

Note: This review was originally published in an issue of newWitch magazine.

I’d heard this book was better than Dancing With Dragons; I’m sorry to say the mediocrity continues.

While this volume is supposed to be advanced dragon magic, it follows the poor formula found in entirely too many pagan books of skimming over a number of topics that are only loosely related. There are countless pages of the same stone, herb, and element correspondences that are found in numerous other books, and there’s additional magic 101 material—all with a few words about dragons tossed in for relevance.

Through the training in this book, one supposedly is able to become an enchanter, a warrior, a shaman, and a mystic. Yet these roles are primarily supposed to be achieved through an increasingly dazzling array of shiny ritual tools and trappings, and overly scripted guided meditations that leave little room for personal experience and exploration. If this is supposed to be more than a 101 book, I’m not impressed.

Conway’s research is seriously lacking. She doesn’t employ critical thinking in her material on Atlantis, instead choosing to take as fact anything that supports her views, no matter how sketchy. Her explanations of dragons in various cultures are overly simplistic and show an incomplete picture of extant lore. And while she has a sizable bibliography, some of the books are of questionable quality, and there are no in-text citations for tracing individual pieces of information.

To top it off, Conway is quite dogmatic in her views. While I have no doubt that this is her reality in truth, she present her own subjective experiences of dragons and the otherworld as universal fact. She perpetuates the inaccurate classifications of white, black and gray magicians, and in my review copy she states “No member of the Five Inner Rings [Conway's dragon magic tradition] is ever called a priest, priestess, guru, master, or any other nonsense name” (22). I wonder how pagan clergy feel having their titles summarily dismissed thusly?

Between the rehashing of material from Dancing With Dragons, and the additional shallow treatment of several magical paradigms—and dragons themselves—I can’t recommend this book to any reader.

One pawprint out of five.

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In the Blood by Adrian Phoenix

In the Blood
Adrian Phoenix
Pocket Books, 2009
390 pages

I was excited when I heard that this sequel to Rush of Wings was out. I’m pretty jaded about vampire novels these days, what with the utter glut of them on the market, but Phoenix’s work stands out like few others. Once again, I found myself immersed in a captivating alternate reality blending urban fantasy, murder mystery, and just a hint of erotica.

Phoenix picks up where the last novel left off, returning Heather Wallace to her home in Seattle, where Dante Baptiste–vampire and Heather’s love interest–is to be touring with his band. This is a plausible setup for the novel, and leads nicely into a story where loose ends from the previous book are brought into play. Since there’s only a space of a few weeks from one book to the next, it makes for a quick transition.

Dante’s health is worsening, Heather’s life has been complicated by family drama, and Lucien–well, Lucien seems to be dealing with the things that all fictitious angels seem to deal with, specifically warring in heavenly realms. These seemingly disparate experiences have more connection than what is immediately apparent, and within just a few chapters I was drawn irretrievably into wanting to know What Happens Next.

You would think that a vampire named Dante from New Orleans would be just another Lestat wannabe. Not so. Phoenix’s characterization of Dante continues to be rich and well-developed, and the same holds for all her characters. They’re believable, they have flaws (and it’s obvious she’s done her research on details), and yet carry the action of the plot with ease and grace. The character development from one novel to the next is also seamless, and this helped me to thoroughly and completely enjoy the ride.

If you’re sick of Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyer, and other huge names, Adrian Phoenix is an excellent up-and-coming alternative. My suggestion would be to treat yourself to this pair of novels; my bet is that you’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next one, just like me.

Five pawprints out of five.

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My Immortal Promise by Jen Holling

My Immortal Promise
Jen Holling
Pocket Books, 2008
326 pages

Vampire romance novels have become their own niche within a niche within a niche. This means that the market has been flooded by a plethora of them of varying premises–and qualities. The newest offering from Jen Holling, Immortal Promise, is a sequel to her book Immortal Protector which, judging from the blurbs, received praise from reviewers.

Holling seems to focus on historical romances set in Scotland; generally speaking, in the romance genre, “historical” is used loosely at best, and this book is no exception. However, most readers of such books aren’t there for the history lesson, so this can be nudged aside. As to the vampire bit, Holling refers to the beings as “blood witches”; there’s not a whole lot of difference between them and any of a number of other authors’ magic-wielding vampires (beyond the bad accents).

Into this mix of elements, Holling drops in a number of rather forgettable, but serviceable characters. Drake, the stud of the story, is fittingly masculine and stoic. Hannah, the leading lady, is fittingly feminine and willing to melt into his arms over time after initial resistance. The supporting cast does its job supporting, and that’s about it. The plotline, while not entirely predictable, doesn’t stand out as a story, and more seems to be a scaffolding for a few sex scenes and romance tropes. Even the sex is mediocre, though Holling makes sure to emphasize more than once that Drake and Hannah like it “hard and fast”.

If you really, really enjoy romance novels and aren’t too picky about the details, this is a fair choice. If you enjoyed Holling’s other works, it’s worth picking up. On the other hand, if you prefer your paranormal romance to be a little more towards the paranormal rather than the romance, this may not suit you. For romance, it’s about average; for anything else, there are better options.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Primal Needs by Susan Sizemore

Primal Needs
Susan Sizemore
Pocket Books, 2009
370 pages

Hey, supernatural romance/fic fans–you’ll want to look at this one! If you’re sick of LKH’s Mary Sues, and are tired of LKH knockoffs that are more smut than plot, Primal Needs is a nice breath of fresh air. Admittedly, since it’s a sequel, if this is your introduction to Sizemore’s work it may take a few chapters to get caught up (as was my experience); however, there’s enough of an actual plot to give good context.

Sizemore offers a world in which there are (of course) vampires and werewolves, among others. Despite having to hide in plain sight, the various supernatural beasties interact with everyday society, as well as retaining their own unique cultures. While this book reveals more about the vampire culture in the novels than werewolves, Sizemore adds some interesting details–not the least of which being that while the vampires are matriarchal, the women actually have very little personal freedom. Of course, you know that our female vampire protagonist, Sidonie Wolf, must buck the system. What 21st century heroine would be content to sit in a guarded castle all the time birthing babies? Taking the part of rebellious youngster, she takes on the world at large, complete with heartbreak, danger, and artificial insemination. Much of the plot revolves around her reluctance to hook up once again with the werewolf who broke her heart–I’ll leave it to you to find out whether they become an item again, or whether that sexy alpha vampire that pops into the picture a few chapters in captures her interest instead.

There’s not a whole lot of sex in this book–it’s mainly of the “fade out at the end of the chapter with insinuations” variety. This leaves plenty of room for a good story. It’s still brain candy, the kind you want to take on the airplane with you–it may not be that memorable, but it’s worth a good first read. For being of the romance genre, it’s a good choice, and quite a nice surprise amid some of my recent fiction reviews.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (artwork by Tatsuya Morino)
Kodansha International
192 pages

Holy crap, but this is a fun book! Think of the monsters and other critters you’ve perhaps encountered in anime and manga, or video games out of Japan. (I’m especially thinking Okami here.) Yokai Attack! provides the background mythology on some of these beings, and numerous others–some of the scariest (and, in some cases, silliest) monsters in Japanese mythos.

While there are the usual suspects such as the Kitsune and various forms of Tengu, did you know about the Kara-Kasa and Bura-Bura, an umbrella and lantern respectively that have been animated into haunts? Or what about Konaki Jiji, who imitates a baby to gain contact with a human which it then crushes to death? These and dozens more Yokai may be found in the pages of this book (not literally, of course!).

The book is put together like a tongue-in-cheek field guide. Amid the suggestions for what to do if you meet up with one of these beings (such as keeping a leaky ladle in your boat in case of a meeting with the Funa-Yurei), there’s solid research about them. The authors are careful to note when a Yokai is of relatively recent origin, and what that origin likely is. For all its manga-ish appearance, it’s a decent resource.

Speaking of manga, the artwork is excellent. It’s not the typical manga-style, though it does mix traditional designs with modern aesthetics. And there are fun little additions to the layout, like little “Post-it notes” and other things with a bit of extra info here and there.

Overall, if you’d like an introduction to Japanese mythology, particularly as is pertains to things that go bump in the night, this is a good read.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Dark Desires After Dusk – Kresley Cole

Dark Desires After Dusk
Kresley Cole
Pocket Books, 2008
368 pages

I get a wide variety of books when I review, which includes an interesting array of fiction from Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster. Amid the various nonfiction texts and tomes, it’s nice to take a break and just have some fun with a bit of fiction. My latest bit of enjoyment, Dark Desires After Dusk, was a quick read, and a bit of a surprise.

Imagine you’re a straight-laced kind of woman–with a case of OCD, no less. Everything in your life needs to go in a particular way. Now add in an entire alternate reality that overlaps with this one, where demon mercenaries interact with vampires, (admittedly unorthodox) Valkyries, and fey beings. Get yourself dragged into the show and dropped right into the spotlight. Oh, and on top of it, your main contact and support in this sudden invasion of your privacy is not only your complete opposite as well as a demon (complete with horns), but has an enormous….ah….crush on you.

You see where this is going, right?

Ever since Laurell K. Hamilton hit it big with her erotica-themed modern fantasy/horror novels, the niche genre has exploded. Some have been more on the novel-with-a-little-sex end; this one is quite firmly planted in the romance novel side of things. I’ll admit to not being a huge romance novel fan; I find them to be rather formulaic, and this one travelled the usual “reluctant female eventually falls for bad boy” route. However, the worldbuilding was good enough to keep me interested. If this hadn’t been specifically intended to be a romance novel, I would suggest that the author cut out the romance and focus more on the really interesting storyline developing aside from the main characters’ budding relationship.

Romance aside, I found this to be a fun read. Cole is a talented writer, and I found her style to be wonderfully inviting. Her fleshing out of the characters was a nice touch–I found myself alternately hating and cheering for Cadeon, the aforementioned demon-bodyguard-pain in the ass, in particular. The sex scenes aren’t overly gratuitous, so they don’t distract too much from the story. And as the book ended with plenty of opportunity for a continuation of the series (of which this is the fifth book), I’m actually curious to see where this goes next.

If you aren’t normally a romance novel reader, you might find the romantic bits to be a bit distracting. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a romance novel that can actually stand on something besides the naughty bits, this is a nice bit of brain candy, and I know I enjoyed the read.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Wicked Game – Jeri Smith-Ready

Wicked Game
Jeri Smith-Ready
Pocket Books, May 2008
384 pages

Branching into more fiction has been good for my sanity. It’s been a nice break from all the nonfic, especially denser texts that may take a while to process. I’m fortunate in that I’ve gotten some good selections, and the vampire novels that Simon and Schuster (who own Pocket Books) have been sending my way are among the best.

Jeri Smith-Ready’s Wicked Game is no exception to that. Set in a small town in the northeast, the story follows Ciara, a sometimes con artist, newbie assistant at a radio station, and well-seasoned skeptic. All’s well for about the first thirty pages–and then the bomb gets dropped. Those nighttime DJs? Vampires, all of them. Which is to be expected in a vampire novel. However, Smith-Ready creates an interpretation of the vampire that goes well beyond the black cape, bats, and Bela-wannabes. In the world of Wicked Game, vampires become locked into the time they were turned; Spencer, for example, has the slick ducktail and greaser style of a 1950s rocker, while Shane’s circa-1995 death keeps him in a perpetual state of Cobain-seque grunge. The music they play as DJs keeps them linked to both the past and present–but what about the future? After all, the radio station’s about to get sold to a major conglomerate, and somebody very important is very unhappy about the station’s latest ad campaign…

Interested yet? You should be. The plotline is incredibly fast-paced and well balanced. Smith-Ready is quite talented with first person voice, managing to give the reader enough background information while at the same time showing Ciara at her most public–and most private. In many novels there’s a tendency to lag at some point in the story. Not so here. This tale kept my interest all the way through, whether the moment was action-packed or sweet and silent.

The characterization is even stronger. Ciara starts with her temporally challenged vampires, adds in some extra quirks, and manages to make them quite likable. Smith-Ready works in minor details that remind the reader of what makes them vampires, and successfully blends these details into the rest of the story. However, they’re not so minor as to be insignificant. And she comes up with good reasons for them–she even manages a plausible theory on the garlic thing! The human characters are equally fleshed out, and she managed to not get me confused about who was who (which is a tougher feat than you might assume!)

What makes this novel really fun are the numerous musical references. It’s nice to see a vampire novel that doesn’t hinge entirely on Goth aesthetics to make it go, and this includes the choice of music. From 1940’s blues to contemporary pop-punk, Smith-Ready gives this book a virtual soundtrack that shows her knowledge and research of music, and a good ear for good listening. Music trivia geeks will find a few gems in here, and fans of various musicians mentioned may find some joy in shared fandom. (Plus I picked up a few extra CD ideas that I hadn’t heard of before–added bonus!)

Overall, this is a fun novel, and it definitely stands out from the crowd of Anne Rice wannabes. It’s a great choice for commute, plane trip, or curling up in a comfy chair for a few hours. Plus it’s a good enough story that it’s got plenty of re-read value. And there are enough hints towards a continuing story that I’m quite hopeful for a sequel–something I definitely encourage the author to do!

Five pawprints out of five.

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Staked – J.F. Lewis

Staked
J.F. Lewis
Pocket Books, 2008
370 pages

This is the second of two brand new vampire novels I’ve reviewed lately, A Rush of Wings, which I reviewed last week, was the other. As with the first book (by a different author), I thoroughly enjoyed this read.

Eric is a vampire. A vampire who owns a strip club, drive a ’64 1/2 Ford Mustang, and has persistent short-term memory problems thanks to having been embalmed. Unfortunately, that werewolf that he killed while defending himself had connections–and now the pack’s coming to collect payment (and did I mention they’re holy rollers on top of it?). On top of it, his girlfriend, who convinced him to turn her into one of the undead, suddenly just isn’t doing it for him any more. And his partner in the strip club business may not be the best friend Eric thought he was. What’s an undead guy to do?

One would think that a novel featuring a vampire-owned strip club would be pretty predictable. Same goes for vampires vs. werewolves, and, of course, the physiology of the vampires themselves. Lewis manages to not only avoid being predictable, but displays an excellent talent at worldbuilding and characterization. Eric is anything but the seedy, smarmy stereotypical strip club owner. Despite being a vampire, he still deals with very human problems, from love to paying fines and tickets. Additionally, because he’s still relatively young, dying in the mid-20th century, he doesn’t have the “I’ve been dead for so long that my culture of origin no longer matters” copout going on. Instead, the reader is treated to odd cultural references from the 1950s and 1960s, and Eric’s life is still punctuated by reminders of his human life–including his would-be wife, Marilyn, who stays with him even after his undeath.

The plot is fast-paced, too, especially for a not-quite-400-page book. Rather than focusing only on the mystery at the center of the story, Lewis brings in several plot threads and fleshes them out enough to keep them interesting. He wraps them up well, though he leaves a few cliffhangers at the end–which makes me really, really want to read the next book! He has a good grasp of dialogue, too; the characters speak believably and have distinctive voices. The changing first-person perspective brings added depth to the story as a whole, and Lewis has a good sense of when to change narrators.

Overall, this is one of the most entertaining and well-developed novels I’ve read in a good long while. Highly, highly recommended.

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Rush of Wings – Adrian Phoenix

A Rush of Wings
Adrian Phoenix
Pocket Books, 2008
404 pages

I’m glad I started reviewing fiction, because it gives me an excuse to review entertaining vampire novels like this one. Fresh from Pocket Books, A Rush of Wings is Adrian Phoenix’ first novel. I dearly hope it won’t be her last.

Phoenix drops us right into New Orleans with a murder mystery–somebody is picking off local Goths, killing them in horrid ways, and leaving cryptic messages. Pretty straightforward, right? Toss in a strong-willed vampire/club owner/musician with an adoring following, a slightly confused FBI agent, and a host of original supporting characters, and the story starts to rise above the usual pulp. Have it written by a talented author who baits the reader with every page, and you have a recipe for a real page-turner.

One thing that I really admire about Phoenix’s writing is her ability to make me care about her characters. The setting is nice, the plot is fast-paced, and she adds just the right amount of erotica to make it tasty, but without turning it into the overflogged vampire smut that’s been going around. However, where Phoenix’s strength really lies is in her character development and presentation. Her characters feel real, even the supernatural ones. They have believable flaws, and their interaction flows naturally, rather than feeling like a bad movie script. What really hit me, though, was now much I cared about what happened to them–when a couple of the supporting characters died, I felt sad, and I could get a good sense of the grief of those who cared about them. Phoenix evokes emotions like few others.

Her world-building skills are strong, too. I’m picky about my supernatural content. However, I was impressed by how she handled vampires, as well as other supernatural entities, and I’m hoping she continues to write in this world, because I’m curious as to how she’ll develop it further. I think my only complaints are that she does fall into some patterns that have been done to (un)death. While she shows a totally different side to New Orleans than Anne Rice did, it’s still–New Orleans. (With all the French undertones–why are vampires always French?) There’s a vampire council that’s alluded to a couple of times, though she doesn’t put much development into it in this book. And her main vampire character isn’t just a run of the mill vampire–he’s a True Blood, a rarity (though he has enough flaws and believability to keep him from being a male Mary Sue). I realize it’s kind of tough to write about vampires without hitting some of the modern conventions, though, and overall I think she did a good job of writing a really good vampire novel.

I’m very much looking forward to more from this author; if you want a good read to get you through a commute, plane trip, head cold, or other instance where you can let yourself sink into a good read, this is a good choice. It’s got a lot of re-reading potential, too–I know I’ll be coming back to it every now and then.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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