Foiled by Jane Yolen with illustrations by Mike Cavallaro
Official Summary: “A quirky, fast-paced urban fantasy by esteemed author Jane Yolen
Aliera Carstairs just doesn’t fit in. She’s always front and center at the fencing studio, but at school she’s invisible. And she’s fine with that … until Avery Castle walks into her first period biology class. Avery may seem perfect now, but will he end up becoming her Prince Charming or just a toad?”
Foiled by Jane Yolen with illustrations by Mike Cavallaro is the story of Aliera Carstairs, a high schooler with a passion for fencing. She splits her time between school, competitive fencing and role playing games with her cousin who has rheumatoid arthritis. Beyond this, her major activities are being embarrassed by her mother’s love of bargain hunting and attempting to cut the weird, fake gem off of the secondhand sword her mother bought for her. But, when an attractive new boy shows up at her school and ends up as her lab partner, Aliera’s life suddenly seems poised to change.
With its focus on fencing, Foiled avoids many of the cliches that are found in both school sports stories and fantasy novels. Aliera is cast as an unknowing hero who has no idea that a fantastical world exists beside her own, but nonetheless has a rational reason for knowing how to sword fight. Her fencing prowess is also a nice touch since it offers the book a rare opportunity to highlight a strong, athletic and competitive female character who is otherwise just like any other young girl that you might read about. Aliera is relatable despite her unique circumstances. Yolen and Cavallaro make good use of the fact that she is colorblind to portray much of the book in shades of dark blues and grays with only the fantasy elements appearing in brilliant color. I also liked the secondary characters in the book. While Aliera’s parents didn’t appear much in the story, they were well-characterized and her slightly embarrassed view of them seemed realistic for a teen. Including her cousin, who uses a wheelchair due to her rheumatoid arthritis was also a nice touch. The book seems to set up further involvement of her cousin in future stories, which I look forward to.
Overall, Foiled is a quick and fun read that will appeal to fencers, fantasy fans and anyone who enjoys a fun high school story. I would definitely recommend it and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.
Check it Out: Foiled is currently available.
Lucid by Michael McMillian
Official Summary: “Lucid is an action-packed, pop-fantasy series that draws inspiration from the spy genre, Arthurian legend, and 21st-century folklore! Dark forces are conspiring to prevent humankind from reaching its true potential. Thankfully, as newly appointed “Protector of the Realm,” Agent Matthew Dee uses his skills as a covert spy and Combat Mage to ensure America’s freedom from the grip of evil.”
Michael McMillian, best known for playing Steve Newlin on “True Blood,” has created a new series of comic books, Lucid, about an alternate reality where magic is not only a real force, but is utilized by a special branch of the government to aid in espionage. This volume collects the first several issues of the comic into a hardcover book for the first time. Over the course of these issues, readers are introduced to Agent Matthew Dee who uses his magical powers to protect America from evil powers. He is helped in this endeavor by a cast of characters from both the U.S. and Britain. These first several issues introduce not only these major players but also some of the villains on the other side of magic that Dee works against. Readers will get a sense of Dee’s work and be left eager to see what Dee will confront next.
While much of what is included in this volume is introductory in nature, it does provide a good sense of the world Dee inhabits and helps to set up the future of the series. The characters are well-realized both through the writing and the art work, which captures the world very effectively. Even in the relatively brief 100 pages of this first volume McMillian includes several separate stories, which left me wishing that the author had focused on fewer stories in more depth, though I expect that will come once the series has settled down to a normal pace, particularly now that its world has been introduced to readers.
Overall, I think that this series will appeal to fans of urban fantasy. It put me in mind of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, and, while they are very different, I think that fans of each will enjoy the other. This comic is definitely worthwhile.
Check it Out: Lucid is currently available.
Readalike: If you enjoy Lucid, you’ll probably also like The Unwritten by Michael Carey or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (start with either the original Storm Front novel or the graphic novel based on that book).
Dark Star by Bethany Frenette
Official Summary: “Audrey Whitticomb has nothing to fear. Her mother is the superhero Morning Star, the most deadly crime-fighter in the Twin Cities, so it’s hard for Audrey not to feel safe. That is, until she’s lured into the sweet night air by something human and not human—something with talons and teeth, and a wide, scarlet smile.
Now Audrey knows the truth: her mom doesn’t fight crime at night. She fights Harrowers—livid, merciless beings who were trapped Beneath eons ago. Yet some have managed to escape. And they want Audrey dead, just because of who she is: one of the Kin.
To survive, Audrey will need to sharpen the powers she has always had. When she gets close to someone, dark corners of the person’s memories become her own, and she sometimes even glimpses the future. If Audrey could only get close to Patrick Tigue, a powerful Harrower masquerading as human, she could use her Knowing to discover the Harrowers’ next move. But Leon, her mother’s bossy, infuriatingly attractive sidekick, has other ideas. Lately, he won’t let Audrey out of his sight.
When an unthinkable betrayal puts Minneapolis in terrible danger, Audrey discovers a wild, untamed power within herself. It may be the key to saving her herself, her family, and her city. Or it may be the force that destroys everything—and everyone—she loves.”
In Dark Star by Bethany Frenette, Minneapolis is protected by its very own superhero, Morning Star, who also happens to have a daughter. This is the story of her daughter. Audrey has always known of her mother’s secret identity as well as that of her mom’s sidekick, Leon. In fact, it has even slipped out to her best friend, Gideon. But, it remains a secret from the rest of the city and Audrey doesn’t think it has much impact on her life. She is a normal high school student and, while she thinks her mother’s powers are cool, she doesn’t think about them much beyond that. But then while she is out at a local club, one of her friends, Tink is attacked. Audrey and Leon find Tink, but not before she has been attacked, which is enough to make Audrey curious about what is going on in her city. When she returns to the club to try to solve the mystery, she too is attacked. This is enough to convince her mother to let her in on the truth of her secret identity - she and Audrey are both Kin with the power to fight Harrowers, who are demons that have crossed over into our world. Audrey must learn to protect herself from this new danger while simultaneously learning the true history of her family.
This book is a fun take on the typical urban fantasy. I really like how Audrey has no problem believing that her mom is a superhero at the beginning of the book. This was a nice variation on the typical plot where the protagonist doesn’t even realize that there are any supernatural elements to their world. I also thought that the fact that Audrey’s mother chose to keep Audrey’s own identity from her gave this book an added element of tension. Audrey is not only dealing with coming into her own powers, but she also learns about the father she never knew and her extended family as her true identity is revealed to her. Audrey and her mother have a great, but believable, relationship that is close but at the same time has some tension as would be expected of a teenage girl and her mother.
Readers will also love the book because of the characters, who are all believable and entertaining. Both Gideon and Tink are fun secondary characters who complement Audrey’s personality and the three are believable as close friends who have known each other for a long time. I also appreciated the fact that Frenette did not create a stereotypical love triangle and instead made it clear from the beginning that Audrey and Gideon were just close friends, because love triangles are a bit of an overdone trope in Young Adult novels that can easily slip into cliche. While I don’t want to give away the other characters that ultimately end up being important to the plot, I will say that all of them are well-developed and convincing parts of the story and they add to Frenette’s universe rather than seeming extraneous.
This book reminded me in many ways of the style of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is a fun story of a high school girl coming into her own as a superhero with powers she never imagined. Fans of the show will definitely enjoy this story, but it will appeal to any reader who enjoys Young Adult Urban Fantasies. Frenette has created a believable world and an entertaining group of characters. I hope that she will follow this book up with more about Audrey and her friends.
Check it Out: Dark Star will be available on October 23rd and is currently available for pre-order.
Note: Review based on ARC from publisher.
Taken by Benedict Jacka
Official Summary: “This time last year, I could go weeks without seeing another mage. In mage society I was an unknown and, all in all, that was how I liked it. It’s hard to say what changed. Whatever it was, I got involved in the magical world again and started getting myself a reputation.
Alex Verus’s insights into the future used to be the best-kept secret in London. Now, with the aid of his apprentice, Luna, his unique investigative talents are all the rage. He just has to be careful about picking his employers, because everyone—even the beautiful woman who practically begs him to run security for a prestigious tournament—has motives that can be hard to predict. And Alex doesn’t do unpredictable.
But his latest gig just might be impossible. Apprentices have been vanishing without a trace—and someone on the Council could be involved. Alex has no evidence, no witnesses, and no suspects. All he knows is that someone is keeping tabs on him. And after assassins target Luna’s classmate, Alex sees that he doesn’t know the half of it—and that he could be the next to disappear.”
Book 3 in Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series, Taken, once again picks up a short time after the events of the previous book. Alex continues to occupy a position of some celebrity amongst mages due to his recent successes and remains deeply suspicious of most other mages. This suspicion leads him to turn down a potentially lucrative job at the very beginning of the book, but he does, ultimately, agree to help the Council out once again. This assignment brings Verus back in contact with several characters from previous books while also introducing new elements of the Council’s bureaucracy, particularly the way that apprentices fit into the magical hierarchy. While the book may leave some who are new to the series a bit confused about Verus’ past activities, it does a good job of adding depth to his world for loyal fans of the series.
NOTE: MINOR SPOILERS FOR EARLIER ALEX VERUS BOOKS BELOW
The book opens with Verus being approached for two jobs. One, which he quickly turns down, is serving as security at the upcoming apprentice dueling competition. The other puts him once again under the employ of the Council, which needs him to investigate, and stop, a series of apprentice disappearances. With Luna newly a part of the apprentice program, Verus is well situated to learn more about the apprentices who have disappeared and to bring an end to this troubling trend, but in his typical fashion it isn’t long before he is drawn into additional mysteries that might just put him on the wrong side of powerful mages once again.
Jacka has done a great job of fleshing out the world of Alex Verus of the past three books in this series. While I noted in my review of the first book that some elements of the world would feel familiar to Urban Fantasy fans, Jacka has added many unique details since that first book which make his take on a magical society distinct from others I have read. This book adds a lot of additional detail to the history of this society, how magic itself works and who practices magic besides mages, including both adepts and non-human magical creatures. Those who read a lot of Urban Fantasy series will be impressed with the originality of many of these details and the degree of thought that has clearly gone into the book.
While this description might make it seem as though the book is mostly an infodump, there is plenty of action to go with all of this information. Jacka has created several fight sequences worthy of the best action movie and has sprinkled them throughout the book to keep the excitement level high throughout. Taken continues to build on the momentum of the previous two books and I think that fans will be even more impressed with Alex Verus by its conclusion. This book makes enough references to the previous Alex Verus books that I would not recommend it as a starting point for the series, but I would highly recommend going back and reading all of the books. Jacka has already announced that he is working on book 4, so you’ll want to be caught up before that one is released!
Readalike: If you are new to the series, start with Fated, the first book in the series. For series in a similar vein, try the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (start with Storm Front) or the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey.
Cursed by Benedict Jacka
Official Summary: “Benedict Jacka’s acclaimed Alex Verus series continues with Cursed.
Since his second sight made him infamous for defeating powerful dark mages, Alex has been keeping his head down. But now he’s discovered the resurgence of a forbidden ritual. Someone is harvesting the life-force of magical creatures—destroying them in the process. And draining humans is next on the agenda. Hired to investigate, Alex realizes that not everyone on the Council wants him delving any deeper. Struggling to distinguish ally from enemy, he finds himself the target of those who would risk their own sanity for power…”
Benedict Jacka continues his Alex Verus series with Cursed. This book picks up a short time after Fated, the first book in the series, with Alex enjoying some bit of fame within the Mage community. While this has helped his business, he remains uncomfortable with and skeptical of his new position in the hierarchy. But, despite this discomfort, his new notoriety plays a role in him being drawn into new projects for both the Council and others. At the same time, his shop is attracting both mages and amateurs alike, including one who becomes a love interest for Luna, which leads to its own set of problems.
I liked this book even more than the first in the series. Jacka does a good job of continuing the story in a way that incorporates elements of the first book with enough description to introduce the basic plot elements to new readers. Since the major world-building work was completed in the first book, Cursed doesn’t need to repeat these elements and therefore ends up being a much more unique and original book. I also appreciated the way that Jacka incorporated and further developed minor side characters that were introduced in Fated. These characters have enlarged Alex’s world and will definitely provide more opportunities for the series to expand in the future. By the end of the book, Alex has resolved the main mysteries he encountered with just enough loose ends remaining to leave the reader looking forward for the next book.
Fans of urban fantasy will definitely want to get started with the Alex Verus series. Given that this book is even more entertaining than the first in the series, I can’t wait to see what will come next.
Readalike: If this sounds interesting, you might want to start with the first book in the series, Fated. Those looking for a similar series should try the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (start with Storm Front) or the Remy Chandler series by Thomas E. Sniegoski (start with A Kiss Before The Apocalypse).
This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova
Official Summary: “What happens when The Firm meets Anita Blake? You get the Halls of Power—our modern world, but twisted. Law, finance, the military, and politics are under the sway of long-lived vampires, werewolves, and the elven Alfar. Humans make the best of rule by “the Spooks,” and contend among themselves to affiliate with the powers-that-be, in order to avoid becoming their prey. Very loyal humans are rewarded with power over other women and men. Very lucky humans are selected to join the vampires, werewolves, and elves—or, on occasion, to live at the Seelie Court.
Linnet Ellery is the offspring of an affluent Connecticut family dating back to Colonial times. Fresh out of law school, she’s beginning her career in a powerful New York “white fang” law firm. She has high hopes of eventually making partner.
But strange things keep happening to her. In a workplace where some humans will eventually achieve immense power and centuries of extra lifespan, office politics can be vicious beyond belief. After some initial missteps, she finds herself sidelined and assigned to unpromising cases. Then, for no reason she can see, she becomes the target of repeated, apparently random violent attacks, escaping injury each time through increasingly improbable circumstances. However, there’s apparently more to Linnet Ellery than a little old-money human privilege. More than even she knows. And as she comes to understand this, she’s going to shake up the system like you wouldn’t believe….”
This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova (a pen name for scifi author Melinda Snodgrass) is the first in a new urban fantasy series set at a law firm run by vampires. Unlike many fantasy series, this one takes place in a world where the Powers (vampires, werewolves and alfar, or elves) live openly and actually control key aspects of business and society. In this world, humans gain status and connections through their association with vampires. For some, these associations start young with human families sending their children to be fostered by vampires to improve their position in life. Others wait until they are in the workplace. Human males who work at the firms vie for the privilege of being made partner and turned into vampires, which go hand-in-hand. Women, on the other hand, are never turned into vampires and therefore hold a secondary spot at the firms, but nevertheless gain prestige by working at the so-called “White Fang” firms that are run by vampires.
This is the world that Linnet Ellery has always inhabited. As a child, she was sent to live as a foster child of a powerful vampire and now that she has finished law school, this vampire’s connections have landed her a job at a powerful firm and in the middle of a power struggle among the partners. Immediately assigned to a seemingly dead-end case, Linnet thinks she will be stuck slogging through boring work, but instead ends up attacked by a vampire who kills the other lawyer on the case. She quickly realizes that there is more to this seemingly pointless case than she first thought. And, despite her best intentions, she gets dragged further and further into the mystery surrounding it.
This Case is Gonna Kill Me will appeal to fans of urban fantasy series. It offers a familiar array of creatures cast in a different light by new and well-developed mythology that is unique to this world. Elements that could seem overdone are instead given a fresh twist that makes this world one that can easily support future novels in the series. Linnet is a relatable protagonist since she is an average human, albeit with good connections, struggling to find her place in this world separate from both her foster and biological families. Some of the side characters seem a bit cliched, but they make sense in the context of the story and are overshadowed by the fact that most of the characters are well-developed and unique.
The mystery itself is entertaining and gives rise to several exciting fight sequences that would be at home in an action movie. By the end of the book, the author has managed to both resolve the core mystery and leave a cliffhanger for future books, which will be sure to leave new fans eager for the next book. For those looking for a new take on the popular plot elements and characters typical in urban fantasies, This Case is Gonna Kill Me is a promising start to a new series.
Check it Out: This Case is Gonna Kill Me will be released on September 4th and is currently available for preorder.
Readalike: Those who enjoy this novel will want to try Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series (start with Some Girls Bite) or the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, which served as the inspiration for the HBO series True Blood (start with Dead Until Dark).
Note: Review based on ARC from publisher.
From the back of the book: "My name’s Alex Verus. It’s not the name I was born with, but that’s another story. I’m a mage; a diviner. Some people call mages like me oracles, or seers, or probability mages if they want to be really wordy, and that’s fine too, just as long as they don’t call me a ‘fortune teller.’
Alex is part of a world hidden in plain sight. He runs a magic shop in London that caters to a clientele that can do much more than pull rabbits out of hats. And while Alex’s own powers aren’t as showy as some mages’, he does have the advantage of foreseeing the possible future - allowing him to pull off operations that have a million-to-one chance of success.
But when Alex is approached by multiple factions seeking his skills to crack open a relic from a long-ago mage war, he knows that whatever’s inside must be beyond powerful. And thanks to his abilities, Alex can predict that by taking the job, his odds of survival are about to go from slim to none…”
I have to admit, I was pretty excited for Fated, the first book in the new Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. My first encounter with the series came at ALA Midwinter, where I read a blurb by Jim Butcher comparing Verus to Harry Dresden, and that was pretty much all I needed to know. I couldn’t wait to read it. Having finished the first book, now I can’t wait until I can find a copy of the next one!
As Fated is the start of a new series, Jacka spends time creating the world that Alex Verus inhabits. Particularly at the beginning of the book, there is quite a bit of explanation and backstory to bring the reader up to speed on Verus’ abilities, his past and how magic works (as an aside, Harry Dresden fans should be on the lookout for an Easter egg in chapter 1). This information is introduced well, but it does contribute to the sense that the book is slow to start with a lot of information provided upfront. As the plot kicks in though, the book quickly becomes very engaging as Verus begins to be drawn into multiple mysterious events. Jacka has created a compelling cast of characters who have real personalities in addition to their magical characteristics. These characters take the reader along for the ride in a very satisfying way and left me wanting to know more about them.
I found Fated to be an enjoyable ride. While fans of urban fantasy will find many aspects of this book comfortably familiar (and I am not the only one to sense this familiarity), Jacka has created a magical universe with many unique details that set it apart from other urban fantasies and help it to overcome the sense of deja vu that some plot elements might provoke. These details extend to every aspect of the story from the way that magic works, to the way that magical society is organized, to the vivid settings throughout the book. For fans of urban fantasies, I think that this is worthy series to add to your “To Read” pile. I know I am already eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.
Read Alikes: Already read Fated and looking for similar books to tide you over until Cursed comes out in May? Try the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the Twenty Palaces novels by Harry Connolly, or the Allie Beckstrom series by Devon Monk.
Note: Review based on ARC from publisher.