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Menagerie by Rachel Vincent

The Reaping was an event that caught the United States by surprise. Families that had been harboring surrogates- inhuman children passing for human- met with disaster, and the surrogates were rounded up and taken away. After the Reaping, inhuman and mythical entities ceased to have rights and became possessions, curiosities, and some were caged for display in menageries.

Delilah’s mother wanted a good child, a quiet child, but was not prepared when…something….took her wailing baby away and replaced it with smiling Delilah. Delilah was raised never aware that things were not quite what they seem. When a trip to a traveling menagerie pulls a supernatural part of Delilah out in public, she is outed as less than human and sold to that same traveling menagerie.

‘Menagerie’ is a look at humanity in every light possible- the kind as well as the cruel. It is a book about grey areas, the actions and intentions and entities that do not fit well into the black and white. It is not always an easy book to read as supernatural and magical beings are brought as low as possible. But it shines, subtly beautiful in a way that will keep it churning in the back of your head long after you have finished reading.

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Casket of Souls by Lynn Flewelling

Alec and Seregil are back, and waist-deep in the intrigue that they seem so adept at untangling. But this will be no easy knot to work with. In the middle of the usual unrest caused by a war that keeps dragging on,the higher classes have become restless as well. Cabals scrabble through treason and treachery in support of their chosen royal’s claim to a throne that still has someone sitting in it. And Alec and Seregil find themselves scrambling to sort it all out before they become the victims of the next power play.

At the same time a mysterious plague works its way quietly through the city, leaving no symptoms but a sort of catatonia until it’s victims finally slip away.

Casket of Souls is an excellent addition to the series. It is a high stakes adventure- in the wake of plague and ambition no punches are pulled and lives are lost. Flewelling again demonstrates her adept hand at writing well formed intrigue with believable consequences. Alec and Seregil’s world is realistic and just as wonderful as it is treacherous. If you are new to the series, pick up the first book, Luck in the Shadows. If you like your fantasy thick with intrigue, your world build rich and populated by a vast array of cultures the Nightrunner books are not to be missed. Especially if you don’t mind a welcome bit of romance thrown in, to raise the stake of every risk being taken.

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Let me start by saying Dragon Haven fills the sometimes frustrating promise of Dragon Keeper. Dragon Keeper is a stunning prologue, setting the scene and getting you familiar with the characters, but nothing happens. Dragon Haven makes up for it.

Dragon Haven continues the trek up a wild, deadly river in the Rain Wilds in search of a fabled city the dragons only half remember. Food and tempers run short, and the book has a nice dose of murder and betrayal to go along with its well placed, well done flits of romance.

Most importantly, we see the Keepers and the Dragons themselves change. The Dragons are growing into their own, gaining in size, awareness, and lethality, and the Keepers are caught in the middle of it all. The Keepers themselves, cast offs of the human society, gain more confidence and their interactions are very true to a group of people coming into their own, the good and the bad.

As always, Hobb weaves a stunning world to cradle her story, and Dragon Haven wallows in a rich, wet world. The discomfort of the travelers is palatable- if you have ever spent time camping in the rain you will be sympathetic to the abject misery of the entire cast as they search desperately for dry land and the myth they are all so invested in.

If you like character studies as much as I do, this series is a must read. The real driving force of the books is a group of dissimilar people being forced to exist in such close quarters, each depending on the other for their survival. Characters grow and change, and I found myself cheering for folks in Dragon Haven that I had written off in Dragon Keeper.

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Secrets of the Fire Sea by Stephen Hunt

This is my favorite of the series so far. Most of the pacing issues I had with previous books, the sort of situation where everything goes to hell in such a rushed fashion the reader is almost left behind, are delightfully absent in this one. The Commodore drove me nuts, as usual, with his eternal put-upon misery, but even that had a fantastic pay off by the end. I think, after finishing the book, that Commodore Black was one of my favorite characters. His scene at the end is just so visceral. Not punches pulled. And I loved it.

Add in Jethro Daunt, the Circlist priest who was kicked out due do the fact he hears old gods (possessing an amazing talent for deductive reasoning), and his companion Boxiron, the head of a Steamman Knight inexpertly attached to the inferior man-made machine body (with an issue with aggression and stuck gears, not to mention a black market skill set) , and Fire Sea has a cast that not only grabs the readers attention but pulls them through each and every page. Every now and then Jethro appears to be a fantastic hat tilt to Sherlock Holmes, and on occasion made me chuckle with appreciation. His first scene in the book really drives that impression, and I was unable to get it out of my head whenever he was in a scene for the rest of the book.

The main protagonist is Hannah Conquest, ward of the church and math prodigy. She is interesting, but serves more as a reason to bring the rest of the cast together than anything else. Purity and Molly remain far more compelling heroines in my opinion.

The isle of Jago itself presents a creepy, hellish setting. From the corrupting domain of the valvemen to the beasts that roam the exterior of the city there is an omnipresent sense of danger and horror. The book itself is full of murder, conspiracy, and skulking Old Gods, which combined with the setting adds the twisted horror aspect I have come to love and expect from Hunt’s books.

The Ursine race added another interesting culture to the social menagerie that populates the world, and the fact the plot hinged on something more mundane than most of the other novels- race/culture conflict between the Humans and the Ursines- the book as a whole was a more intriguing read.

This is a wholly brilliant addition to the series. I highly recommend picking it up!

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Face Off by Mark Del Franco

I will continue to rate these highly by virtue of the utterly fantastic world build. I read and read and I still want to know more about Fae politics, and how they are dealing with being thrust into the human world, and how the humans are coping. It seems an overdone, trite concept, but trust me when I say this is a singular world/series.

The plotting and the scheming in Face Off was good, though I did sort out the overriding threat long before the protagonist did, which left the last chunk of the book less interesting than it could have been, but it was still executed very well.

The second Laura Blackstone novel lived up to the expectations of the first, and moved a bit more towards a more typical urban fantasy with the development of her love interest. The character still remains intensely interesting on a psychological level- having one person pretending to be so many conflicting personas at once leads to interesting contemplations on issues of the self- and Laura does go through some changes in this book. And they are good changes, ones that further the character, and I am interested to see where they take future books.

Del Franco’s Connor Gray books remain a better series in my opinion, but the Laura Blackstone books are still a very enjoyable read. You get an inside view of the Guild and InterSec workings you miss from reading Connor’s point of view. Both series work together excellently to flesh out the magnificent world Del Franco has created.

If you are looking for unique urban fantasy, give either of these series a shot. They are well worth it.

Face Off

Skin Deep (The first Laura Blackstone novel)

Unshapely Things (the first Connor Grey novel)

‘Rise of the Iron Moon’ by Stephen Hunt

If you have any interest in steampunk at all, this series should be at the top of your to read list. The world build is a perfect mix of industrial and fantastical. The society is delightfully skewed and often brutal, and horrifyingly believable.

This was a book bursting with pure, enjoyable high adventure. As a bonus, the two lead characters from Court of the Air made an appearance, and while they were not technically center stage for this adventure, they worked very well with those who were.

There is a new threat to the Kingdom of Jackals, and it comes in the form of the invading Army of Shadows. The Army leaves desolate wastelands in its wake as its bizarre creatures rape lands to supply the needs of the Masters. It is up to Molly, Oliver, the Commodore, Coppertracks, and young Purity Drake to somehow stop the Army, defeat the Masters, and save their world. There are hijinks and shenanigans aplenty, politics and dark magics.

We get to see more of the Steam Nation and its sentient race of steam men, which I always enjoy. A nice mix of technomancy and voodoo make the steam culture one of my favorites in the books.

As always, it is the tone of this series that brings me back again and again with such delight. High stakes mayhem and cunning social commentary work very well together and make for some amazing page turners.

Court of the Air is the first book in the series, followed by Kingdom Beyond the Waves. They are all brilliant reads, and I cannot recommend them highly enough. They are fun, pure and simple, and everything else ties into that sense of fun and excitement to make one of the most satisfying reads I have enjoyed in a long time.