Sunday, February 27, 2011

No Sanctuary to be Found, Amidst the Portents of Change

>>ARC Review<<

Revenge and retribution, regret and recriminations. Not an ideal mix... but it’s really no more and no less than Changeling (half-fae, half-human) October Daye--fearless knight and reluctant hero--has become accustomed to dealing with on a daily basis. 
Let’s take stock, shall we? (Note: If you haven't read the first three books in this series--Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, and An Artificial Night--yet, why?? Hie yourself over to my reviews of each of them, first. Here, here, and here. Then go find each book and read it. Then come back here. You'll thank me, really.) Anyway, back to the recap... First, Toby endured being turned into a fish and left for dead-- and would have died, were it not for the kindness of a human passerby who happened to notice the floundering fish and scooped it off the pavement and into a nearby pond. (That pond, by the way, was her home for the next fourteen years... during which time, she lost the human husband and daughter who assumed she’d deserted them.) 
Next, she was betrayed by former lover Devin, who murdered one of her oldest and dearest friends, the Countess Evening Winterrose, before trying to kill her, too. (Yes, she defeated him in the end... but Evening was no less dead, and one of Devin’s young protegés, a teenage girl, was also a victim in the fatal fracas.)  
After failing years earlier to rescue her liege Sylvester Torquill’s abducted wife and daughter (the whole fish episode had put the kibosh on that), she then worked doubly-hard trying to save his niece, Countess January O’Leary, when someone started killing off her employees. (Toby figured everything out in the end and nabbed the murderer... but not in time to save January.) 
Most recently, she risked everything to mount a huge rescue operation of a group of human and fae children, all of whom were kidnapped by a crazy First-born fae known as Blind Michael. (Oh, that First-born part? Just so you know, it simply isn’t done, “going up against”--let alone killing--one of them... but she did, and in the process, she saved as many of the children as she possibly could.)
Yes, she’s an imperfect hero... but it’s the role she’s taken on, for better or worse. 
❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁
When Late Eclipses--the fourth in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series--begins, Toby has mostly been laying low. There was the whole recovery thing following her ordeal with Blind Michael, for starters. She’s also well-aware that she’s in some pretty serious trouble--committing a cardinal fae sin, if you will, for killing him--and has just sort of been waiting for the hammer to fall on that part.
The period of regrouping comes to an abrupt end when a summons from the Queen of the Mists--who harbors an intense dislike of Toby--leads to a shocking announcement. Before Toby has a chance to wrap her mind around the queen’s decree, though, something far more urgent takes precedence: Lily, the Lady of the Tea Gardens--another one of Toby’s oldest friends and staunchest supporters--is gravely ill, felled by a mysterious malady. And, as powerful a healer as the Undine leader of the Gardens is, she cannot simply heal herself... leaving her gentle, peaceful subjects--most of whom were unloved outcasts before finding their way into Lily’s care and protection--terrified for their futures.
Toby, of course, will do everything in her power to make things right; she just hopes desperately that “everything in her power” is enough, for once. She consults the Luidaeg, but this time the scary First-born (who thankfully has a soft spot for Toby) has nothing to offer. She moves on to Plan B, enlisting the aid of a local fae chemistry professor to study Lily’s illness through means both magical and scientific, and requesting help from long-time acquaintance Tybalt, the King of Cats (with whom she shares a complicated, to put it mildly, relationship), to guard Lily’s Knowe. 
That, unfortunately, is when things go from strange and scary and awful... to strange and scary and much, much worse. (Hell in a handbasket? Yeah, like that.) 
When Toby last ran into her liege’s twin brother Simon Torquill and his lady friend, the beautiful-but-deadly Oleander de Merelands, more than sixteen years ago, the pair captured and enchanted her (the fishy business, again). But, since no one has heard from Oleander since then, she’d been relegated to little more than a menacing figure in Toby’s nightmares.
But now, she’s back... or so it seems, after Toby first smells Oleander’s signature magic, then has a run-in with her. Well, kind of... maybe. In a scene reminiscent of the old “Is it live... or is it Memorex” ads, Toby isn’t entirely certain whether she’s actually interacting with the real Oleander or with her projection... but either way, one thing is sure: Oleander is alive and well somewhere, and up to no good.
Just when it seems things can’t possibly get any worse, they do; more sickness hits those closest to Toby. Sylvester’s wife Luna comes down with something--something as inexplicable as whatever is ailing Lily. And then, the Kingdom of Cats is hit by a mysterious and deadly plague. 
As for Toby? Well, she gets blamed for all of it--the sicknesses, the troubles, and the body count--as people start to die. The punishment for the crimes of which she’s accused? Not good. Really not good. So far from “good”, in fact, that she doesn’t see any way out of her predicament; she only hopes to somehow save as many of her friends as possible. As Toby says, 
“In the end, there’s never a sanctuary. You run until there’s nowhere left to run to, and then you fight, and then you die, and then it’s over. That’s how the world works, and if there’s a way to change that, I hope someone’s eventually planning to let me know.”
❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁ ~ ❁
Late Eclipses is chock-full of everything I can’t get enough of in this series. The fabulously-wacky-and-endearing characters are all present and accounted for; in addition to those mentioned earlier, there’s plenty of May (Toby’s spunky fetch), Quentin (Sylvester’s page/Toby’s sometimes-sidekick), Danny (lovable bridge troll, cabbie, and adopter of orphaned Barghests), and Connor (gentle Selkie--now married to Sylvester and Luna’s nutty daughter Raysel--and ex-boyfriend of Toby). Raysel, though anything but likeable, is always fascinating. There are a couple of cameo appearances by Amandine, Toby’s absent (and crazy) fae mother. Nor are the pets forgotten; we see a good amount of Spike (Toby’s Rose Goblin) and a little bit of Cagney and Lacey (Toby’s cats).
What about action and excitement? Late Eclipses has them in spades; it’s a roller coaster ride from beginning to end. Seriously, this one doesn’t let up... ever. Toby’s body is moving as fast as the wheels in her mind are spinning, although she does become very, very exhausted. 
And speaking of Toby, I remain absolutely crazy for this heroine. She and her problems are completely believable. She suffers aches and pains, injuries, and a lot of killer headaches. (Honestly, I would love her for that alone, even if she did nothing else.) She regrets so many things in her life, and constantly feels guilty for the ones she’s convinced that she mucked up. (When she has a couple of steamy kisses, I felt like standing up and cheering, because Toby seriously deserves some unqualified good stuff in her life.) 
There’s an inescapable poignancy to this series, and an underlying melancholy. Nothing is perfect--not in the mortal world, and certainly not in the fae world of the Summerlands. There’s suffering and loss, and hardship and grief, as a lot of bad things happen to some very nice people. No matter what, every action has a repercussion, and every resolution comes with a heavy price.   
Did I figure some things out well ahead of Toby? Sure... but I also have the benefit of watching from the outside, which is much easier to do. Would I make the same decisions that she does? Probably not every single one... but then again, this isn’t my story, it’s Toby’s story. 
Bottom line? I am beyond thrilled with this latest entry in what is, hands down, my absolute favorite urban fantasy series. I plan to be right here, anxiously watching as Toby fumbles and fights her way through an ever-changing world... weeping with her when she suffers another loss, and celebrating when she manages a win. And I have faith that someday, there will be more wins than losses, more smiles than tears. 
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!!

[Note: Late Eclipses will be released March 1, 2011.] 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Blood, Magic, & Love: The Alchemy of Being

Proper English libraries and staid country manors, drafty French castles built to hold off hordes of invaders, and a haunted New England farmhouse, full of the usual assortment of characters... at least, if one numbers witches, vampires, and demons among the “usual” inhabitants.
As improbable as that sounds, it all comes across as a rather “ordinary” sort of world in newcomer Deborah Harkness’s fabulous (and strikingly-different) supernatural tale, A Discovery of Witches.
And what a debut this is! Artfully combining historical facts with literature, science, philosophy, myth and lore--plus thoughtfully contemplating the nature of love--Harkness shows off her storytelling chops to great effect. This is an author with some very interesting things to say, and a splendidly-unhackneyed way of going about it.
✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
It’s a typical day for American professor Dr. Diana Bishop, sequestered once again in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library behind a huge stack of rare books. An expert in the field of 16th-century alchemy (the philosophical and scientific study of attempting to turn base metals into gold and to find the elixir of life), Diana is laboriously making her way through the latest pile of dusty tomes which she’s requested from the library’s enviable collection. 

Her ordinary day takes a rather extraordinary turn, however, when she notices something startling about the ancient manuscripts laid out before her. One of the books wasn’t on the list she submitted... because everyone knows it's a book that has been missing for centuries. 
And that's not all; an even-greater surprise follows, when she discovers that the long-lost book is enchanted... and that she has somehow managed to unlock the magical spell which had bound the book closed for so long... without having a clue as to how she accomplished it
Diana, you see, isn’t just a professor; she’s also a witch... albeit a very reluctant (not to mention completely untrained) one.
It’s important to understand that being a witch isn’t simply a matter of learning how to practice spells on unsuspecting frogs or to levitate spoons from the cutlery drawer; in this world, one is born a witch, whether one learns to harness and use one’s innate powers or not. (Harkness makes distinctions between “humans” and “creatures”; humans have few innate powers at their disposal, whereas the three types of creatures--witches, vampires, and demons--possess an array of special abilities, whether born to them, in the case of witches and demons, or by acquiring them after undergoing a radical change, in the case of vampires.) 
Facing her own magical lineage has always been something Diana shied away from doing. A direct descendant of the very first witch to be burned at the stake in Salem--as well as being the orphaned daughter of two powerful witches who were murdered for their craft when she was only a child--she is, quite understandably, a bit gun-shy about embracing her "gift". Instead, most of her life has been spent avoiding who and what she is, trying to live as an ordinary human, in what she hoped was relative safety and anonymity. (That’s all about to change, of course.)
But back to the enchanted alchemy textbook, which is alarming even to an untrained witch such as Diana. Tentatively paging through the arcane manuscript, she notes some ominous things... missing pages, incorrectly-drawn illustrations, and that the book is actually a palimpsest (with an underlayer of writing beneath the readily-apparent one). Uneasily, she returns the book to the circulation desk, thinking perhaps she should just forget about it for the time being.
Of course, that would be too easy. Magic has a way of making its presence known, and within 24 hours, there are dozens of witches, vampires, and demons hanging out at the Bodleian, all eager to get their hands on the book... a book which, curiously, has once again gone missing. (That being the case, the horde of creatures will, unfortunately, settle for getting their hands on Diana.) 
Among those whose attention she has drawn is a reclusive, fellow Oxford scientist--none other than 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont--who has been trying to track the elusive manuscript for centuries. Why? Because it's rumored to hold the key to everything; the book is thought to document not the origin, life force, and meaning of man, but of witches, vampires, and demons... and it may also contain the key to their future survival.
As one after another creature wheedles--then threatens and harasses--her, trying to get her to re-call the book from the stacks and explain how she managed to open it, Diana finds herself turning more frequently to Matthew for advice and protection. (Yes, he’s a scary old vampire... but he’s also an eminent member of the university, and one of the few beings who hasn’t threatened her.) And, when her lodgings are ransacked and her life threatened by a particularly nasty witch who has grown tired of waiting Diana out, it seems only natural that she agree to let Matthew spirit her away to his ancestral home in France.
There, the pair continue their research, comparing genomic sequencing results with the work of early scientists, and trying to figure how the findings apply to them. They try to formulate some sort of battle strategy, too, since it’s clear that no one will be giving up any time soon. And, Diana struggles to get a handle on her long-dormant powers... which have begun manifesting themselves at odd moments, and which she has no clue how to deal with or control.

There's one other teensy little thing to worry about: the feelings between the vampire and the witch. Inter-species relationships were expressly forbidden by supernatural law, long ago. A union between the two of them would not only draw scorn, but would put them in perhaps the greatest danger of all.
Still, the heart wants what the heart wants, so the lovers flee once more. This time, they seek out Diana’s childhood home, where her aunts raised her following her parents’ murders. They hope they'll be safe long enough that the witches can teach Diana to use her immense but untapped abilities... because their only hope of surviving the impending war--and ensuring the future welfare of all creatures--depends upon it.
✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
A Discovery of Witches is a substantial book, in length and scope. Harkness takes her time, gradually painting a beautiful picture, and fleshing it out with historical details, lore, passion, and romance. You might worry that the book meanders aimlessly, but it doesn’t. Instead, it leisurely explores a relationship between two equals who come from very different worlds, set against a turbulent backdrop colored by fear, racism, and tradition, and does it with elegance, style, and ease. 
The main characters, Diana and Matthew, are likable, but neither is painted as some ridiculous ideal. Matthew is a vampire, so of course he’s attractive and charming... but he’s a vampire, which also means he feeds on humans and animals (which isn’t particularly pleasant). Diana may possess untold powers as a witch, but extreme beauty isn’t among them, nor is she remotely adept at any of the powers she does have. (An impossibly-capable heroine, she isn't.) There’s a certain amount of blood (repeat: here be vampires), although not so much gore, and there’s very, very little sex. (Forget the R-rated bloodsuckers popular of late in books, TV, and the movies; this isn't like that, at all.) 
What this is, is a love story wrapped up in a supernatural mystery, with philosophical undertones and scientific overtones. If you’re looking for over-the-top or gratuitous anything, you’ll be disappointed. If you've been craving something intelligent and magical and different, though, this might just be your cup of herbal tea.
Finally, I should mention that this book seems to be the first in a series; the story doesn’t entirely resolve itself on the last page. However--and this is of major importance to anyone who dreads the thought of yet another cliffhanger--take heart that there isn’t one of those frustrating, oh-my-gosh-what-happens-in-the-next-five-minutes endings here, either. A Discovery of Witches is a self-contained story, with the promise of an equally-entertaining sequel. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.25 out of 5 mousies!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy Me Day...

It would hardly be an understatement to say that the magic has, erm, dimmed just a tad from the celebration of the day I entered the world--not terribly surprising, really, given that my partner's b-day greeting to me this year consisted of "So... howzit feel ta be another year older?"--but perversely, I prefer to look on the bright side.

What's that, you ask?

I have this...
Boycat. Mine, all mine.

As consolation prizes go, I think I'm pretty lucky.

So, Happy Me Day! :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Shark Bait Surprise in Sin City

[ARC Review]

In a city that never sleeps, there’s always something going on--whether it’s something fun, exciting, sad, unbelievable, scary, dangerous, sexy, or weird (and that’s just for starters).
Most of us wouldn’t expect to experience all of them in a 24-hour period, though.
Then again, no other city is quite like Las Vegas... that glitzy-against-all-odds desert playground where all bets are off when it comes to finding oneself in crazy situations.  
~ ✩ ~ ✩ ~  ✩ ~ ✩ ~ ✩ ~
Last year, newcomer Deborah Coonts whetted our appetites with her delicious delight of a debut, Wanna Get Lucky--a rollicking-good-time of a mystery set in Sin City. (Haven't read it yet? Check out my review, here.) Now, she’s serving up a tasty second course with Lucky Stiff, which picks up the action a couple months later. 
Long-suffering, thirty-something head of the prestigious Babylon hotel’s customer relations department, Lucky O’Toole, is still doing what she does best... racing around on high heels, putting out (figural) fires, placating unhappy guests with comps and perks (while more-or-less gracefully extricating others from embarrassing jams), kowtowing to big-whigs and wannabes all desperate to be seen at the elite Vegas venue, and coordinating everything with the rest of the huge hotel’s staff. (Piece of cake, right? Well, no, but it is all in a day's work for Ms. O'Toole.)
There have been a few changes in the interim... Lucky recently learned a Really Big Secret about her employer, Vegas legend Arthur Rothstein (aka the “Big Boss”)--and she’s determined to make sure it remains secret. She has also renewed her efforts to work on her relationship with Mona, the flamboyant owner of a pink-and-purple bordello outside of town (widely regarded as the area’s best whorehouse)... who just so happens to be her mother. (What... doesn’t everyone drop off bags of the newest porno releases at her mother’s house?) Definitely the biggest change, though, is that Lucky is now, officially, one half of A Couple. After finally giving in to her heart (okay, maybe it was her libido), Lucky and (now)ex-female impersonator Teddie have become a bonafide item... but she’s discovering that being in a relationship is a whole new game of chance, complete with a set of rules she’s still scrambling to learn.
There really is always something happening in Vegas--especially in a joint like the Babylon--and in Lucky Stiff, our plucky “fixer” of problems will need to call on every bit of that signature luck if she plans to walk away with her job, her happiness, and maybe even her life, in tact...
Her day (well, make that her very-late-night) starts off with a bang, when a semi-truck full of honey bees en route to a weekend entomology convention at the hotel jack-knifes and overturns a block away, releasing a million angry, dislodged bees. (Despite initially entertaining the milling crowd, you can guess how that bit of hilarity plays out, can’t you?) 
Fresh from dealing with the bee problem, Lucky has the misfortune to witness the tail-end of a heated argument between her Aussie private eye friend, “the beautiful Jeremy Whitlock” (yes, you read that right), and a nasty piece of work, the infamous oddsmaker Numbers Neidermeyer. Then, it’s off to rescue a naked man--now hiding in a supply closet--who has managed to lock himself out of his room. (Nothing too unusual... except that this particular guest clad only in goosebumps happens to be Vegas‘ District Attorney.) And of course, there are all the usual preparations for the never-ending special events; besides the entomologists’ convention, this is also “fight weekend”, featuring an aging former champ who’s attempting to regain the title, one last time. 
Unfortunately, those things pale in comparison to what happens the next day, when Lucky is shocked to learn that Numbers is now very (gruesomely) dead and that the beautiful Jeremy Whitlock is Suspect Numero Uno. As for the person out for the Aussie’s blood? None other than a certain recently over-exposed District Attorney. 
Lucky’s mother drops the next bombshell, announcing an impending public auction... with a (certified!) virgin going to the highest bidder. (Yes, really, and that's all I'm going to say about it.)
And then there’s Teddie, who has given up his impersonation gig to focus on making his own music. He’s jetting off to a big audition in L.A., leaving Lucky feeling out of sorts and insecure about their future. 
Over the next few days, Lucky races around the city and over the desert in an assortment of fast cars (plus one painfully-slow, sub-compact economy thing) and a helicopter, trying to clear her friend’s name and do what she can to change the mind of a certain virgin... while also dealing with the insanity surrounding the big fight, a young pop singer with eyes (and no doubt many other nubile parts) for Lucky’s man, a hunky Hollywood hero (and old friend) with a very interesting proposition, the Babylon’s temperamental new French chef (who creates more sizzle than just what comes out of the pans simmering on the Aga in his kitchen)... plus the unknown someone who really, really wants Lucky to stop investigating Numbers‘ death.
~ ✩ ~ ✩ ~  ✩ ~ ✩ ~ ✩ ~ 
Continuing the pattern established in the first book, Lucky Stiff hits the ground running and doesn’t pause for air until the final page (and actually, not even then). Coonts has a real flair for assembling a nifty set of characters--from the likably loopy to the uniquely unexpected to the deliciously devious to the downright dastardly--which she then tosses into her bubbling stew, liberally peppered with lust, desire, guilt, and hope. Situations that would seem totally over-the-top in another setting are somehow entirely believable in this one, and all the showy excess and excitement are as in-your-face as if you were walking down the neon-lit Strip at Lucky's side. 
Coonts shows a restrained sensitivity, as well, which nicely balances the breezy fun and the derring-do. There’s an undercurrent of melancholy, as Lucky--who has experienced firsthand both the classic Vegas "cool" and the newer, slicker machine that her city has since morphed into--straddles the line between the charismatic old-school players and the cold corporate concerns. Her vulnerability is front and center, too; she may be a smart, competent cookie with a quick wit and killer personality, but she’s as full of insecurities and uncertainties as anyone else. It’s easy to care about what happens to her (and to everyone else in her orbit). 
Lucky Stiff shines as brightly as the nightly Fremont Street Experience light show, but is full of those little pockets of darkness found only down the blackest alleyways... and the heady mix that results is one you do not want to miss. (Lucky Stiff will be released 2/15/11.)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 Mousies