Friday, November 4, 2011

Butcher, Cashore, Clare, Stiefvater

Death Masks
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this fifth novel in "The Dresden Files," Chicago's only professional wizard defies a prophecy of his own death to take on a case that involves fallen angels, a plague curse, and the theft of the Shroud of Turin. As if that isn't enough, he faces a vicious Red Court vampire from South America in a duel that could end the war between wizards and vampires... if he lives to fight it. And finally, he rekindles an old flame with Susan, who is only a drink away from completing her transformation into a vampire herself.

Only Susan's willpower, her vows to a secret organization, and a weird pattern of tattoos prevent her from drinking Dresden the minute she sees him. Two kinds of hunger battle it out with love caught between them in an erotic subplot that promises to keep Harry's romantically tortured edge keen and bright for several books to come. Meanwhile, the wizard's relationships with a White Court vampire named Thomas, a paladin named Michael, and his order of angelic-sword-wielding do-gooders, continue to deepen. A heavenly calling falls into Dresden's hands, one he is not sure he can ever live up to; and a new darkness enters his life as well, straight out of the depths of hell.

Like the other Harry Dresden novels, this book comes with a matched pair of "adult" and "occult" content advisories. Sensitive readers, and parents who care to be involved in their children's literary lives, should be advised that there is a steamy love scene in these pages. Plus, the magic depicted in this novel includes arcane rituals, the summoning of spirits, and (in its darker, more evil forms) blood sacrifice. Take these concerns under advisement before deciding if this book is for you or your kids. Also be aware that it is full of edge-of-your-seat danger, gruesome violence, strange alliances, terrifying monsters, magical surprises, and a steady patter of wry humor that guarantees at least a chuckle on almost every page. If you ever fantasized about Harry Potter's grown-up career as a hard-boiled crime fighter, with such stylish touches as a leather duster and an old-school VW Beetle—or even if you just like your crime novels sexy, funny, and with a touch of magic—the Dresden Files may be the very thing.

Blood Rites
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is the sixth novel in "The Dresden Files," an ongoing series that has been made into a television program, and which has been touted as the adult answer to Harry Potter. While I question the aptness of that comparison, I have enjoyed this series enough to be shocked at myself for falling so far behind. At this writing there are seven more Harry Dresden novels, plus a spinoff novelette and a short story collection. Plus, Jim Butcher has been simultaneously writing the six-book "Codex Alera" series of fantasy novels, beginning with Furies of Calderon.

So I have a lot of catching up to do, and nothing makes me feel farther behind-the-game than the big change in Harry's life that happens in this book. Truly, I think I saw it coming a few books back, but the secret that has been brewing under the surface comes out in this book, and the Harry Dresden Story turns a corner that will affect the course of all his future adventures. How can I hint at it without giving it away? Let's start with the double entendre in the book's title. The story has to do with blood, in more than one sense of the word. It involves vampires, and it involves family, combined in a really twisted way. I'm not just talking about Harry's cop friend Murphy finding out that her emotionally predatory ex-husband has gotten engaged to her kid sister. I mean something way more twisted: a fiendish, deadly family reunion that gets all tangled up with the case Dresden has been hired to solve.

That case involves a series of magically freakish accidents that have been targeting the women surrounding the production of an adult film. Harry's White Court vampire friend Thomas (naturally) is the one who gets him involved in the case, and he increasingly suspects that the sexually predatory Whites are deeply involved. But while there's plenty of danger going around with an entropy curse swooping down on the porno's cast and crew every twelve hours, Harry has even bigger threats to deal with. Like a Black Court vampire and her scourge of undead, mostly-dead, and still-living minions gunning for Harry in a vendetta that could claim many innocent lives. Like a hired gun whose fee Harry can't afford to pay, and whose debt-collection tactics Harry can afford even less. Like a crisis of faith in the wizardly values he learned from his kindly but flawed surrogate father. Like a power play within an ancient crime family when Harry, as usual, is right in the middle.

At book six, I'm less than halfway caught up with the Dresden Files. Yet I'm far enough into the series that I can credibly conclude that Jim Butcher is not one of those authors whose work gets weaker with each installment. He seems far from getting tired of writing the Dresden Files, and I am far from getting tired of reading them. Each book excels the ones before it in displays of wizardly power, depths of otherworldly spookiness, mammoth conflicts between good and evil, and the steady flow of sexy charm and irreverent humor. And though I obviously can't avoid pasting an "adult content" and "occult content" advisory on this book, it is only fair to note that both Butcher and his hero have a conscience about these things, as evidenced (for example) when Dresden realizes that pornography is a tool sexual predators use to lure in their prey. All things considered, I give this book, its author, and its series high marks.

by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 14+

Welcome to the Kingdom of the Dells, wedged between impassable mountains, a wintry sea, and the hostile neighboring country of Pikkia. In this small, isolated world within the world, the first fact of life you need to know, if you mean to live long, is that monsters exist. In the Dells, "monsters" are not huge, ugly beasts. In fact, they look just like ordinary animals and people, except more beautiful—hypnotically, unnaturally beautiful. Their eyes and hair come in weird colors, which is how you can spot them. But beware: though they are shaped like regular birds, and beasts, and people, they are terribly dangerous. They hunger for blood and flesh, especially that of other monsters—though they will settle for human prey as well. And in the case of monster men and women, they have the ability to ensnare minds and bend others to their will.

One such human monster was the handsome devil Cansrel, who pulled the strings of the late King Nax, turning his reign into a lawless scramble for sensual pleasure, punctuated by explosions of sadistic anger. Now Nax and Cansrel are both gone. The new king Nash, who has some of his father's weaknesses, struggles to hang on to his throne while warlords at the northern and southern ends of his realm plot his overthrow. All his hopes lie in the military genius of his youngest brother Brigan, the espionage work of his middle siblings, and Cansrel's flame-headed daughter Fire, last of the human monsters.

Like A. Lee Martinez's Monster, the first surprise in this book may be that its title is also the name of its main character. Fire is beautiful not only on the outside, like any monster of the Dellian persuasion, but also where it counts. She dreads using her powers, or being used, for the kind of evil that led her country to the brink of ruin. She loves her childhood friend Archer, but can never love him the way he wants her to. She needs to be guarded, night and day, against predatory monster birds and beasts that would go into a feeding frenzy at the first glimpse of her hair or scent of her blood—and against those people whose minds are not guarded against the telepathic power that surrounds her, against her will, driving them mad with either love or hate. One of the people who has trouble controlling his love for her is King Nash, whom she doesn't love but loyally serves; while the man she really loves is his brother Brigan, whose violent way of life and ice-hard mental discipline nevertheless rankle at her.

Fire's adventure is partly a tale of war and intrigue with the fate of a kingdom in the balance, partly a tale of love and loss with Fire's heart at stake. Her most dangerous enemy turns out to be a "wild card"—a boy from the other side of the mountain barrier, where the proverbial "gift and curse" takes a very different form. Birth and death, crime and heroism, deadly extremes of cold and flame, the uncovering of long-kept secrets, and the discovery of new family ties, are only some of what is in store for Fire in this passionate, thrilling fantasy novel. This second book in the "Seven Kingdoms" trilogy is the sequel to Graceling. The third book, titled Bitterblue, comes out in 2012. Visit the author's blog for updates!

City of Glass
by Cassandra Clare
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third book in "The Mortal Instruments" series, the irresistible attraction between Clary and her brother Jace comes to a crisis that could bring death to at least one of them, if not the entire demon-fighting, secret world of Shadowhunters. Their sibling relationship, revealed by their bad-guy father Valentine at the end of their previous adventure, has put a kibosh on their budding romance, but not on the forbidden feelings that continue to torment both of them. But in the even greater battle to come, a deadly new ingredient will be added to the already simmering emotional cauldron: another brother...

Partly to get away from her, and partly to protect her, Jace tries to keep Clary from joining him and the Lightwood family on a trip to the secret Shadowhunter citadel of Idris, the City of Glass. What he doesn't plan on is Clary's friend, the fledgling vampire Simon, being dragged along on the trip. Though he has the mysterious and unique ability to walk in sunlight, Simon is no match for the politics and betrayals of Idris. And with her ability to call up magical runes that no Shadowhunter has ever learned, a small thing like missing the portal to Idris isn't going to hold Clary back. But no sooner do brother, sister, and all their friends find themselves together again, than a new danger approaches, one greater than any they have faced before. It involves a magic mirror, a son with demon blood, and an army of hellish fiends that Valentine is ready to turn loose on the citizens of Idris, so that he can destroy all the Shadowhunters, call forth the angel who created them, and establish a new race of demon-fighting heroes.

Obviously, the good guys have to stop him, or they're all going to die. But it's not going to be easy when they are betrayed from within, crushed by griefs both old and new, torn between accepting help from "Downworlders" (vampires, werewolves, faeries, and wizards) and lumping them together with their enemies, and—in Jace's case—confused as to whether it is his destiny to do evil or good, or perhaps to go out in a blaze of glory before his own desires consume him from within. Fans of the "Twilight" saga, hungering for more action featuring fantasy heroes and villains of the teen fashion model type will find this series especially compelling. The rest of us will have to consider other merits of this book, such as a climactic angel visitation that I thought was portrayed with a surprising blend of terror and theological acuity. Truly, one should not wish lightly to be visited by an angel of God!

This book is a sequel to City of Bones and City of Ashes. The series continues with City of Fallen Angels (2011) and City of Lost Souls (coming in 2012). Cassandra Clare has also begun a prequel series called "The Infernal Devices." Set in the Victorian era, its titles so far include Clockwork Angel (2010) and Clockwork Prince (December 2011). For more information, visit the author's website.

Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception
by Maggie Stiefvater
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first book in a series called "Books of Faerie." I actually started to read its sequel, titled Ballad, before I realized that I needed to go back and read this book first. Even though this meant extra expense and tiresome delay, it was worth it. How could I resist a story combining faerie magic and the world of music?

Deirdre Monaghan and her best friend James are an odd couple. She is shy, introverted, functionally invisible in the high school social scene; he is outgoing, funny, a real character. It seems their gift for folk music—she a harpist, he a bagpiper—may be the only thing they have in common. But when the mysterious and sexy Luke shows up at a talent contest and swoops into the middle of Dee's act, a few more pieces of common ground come into view. For one, James is in love with Dee, but he only gathers up the courage to tell her so, and risk their friendship doing it, after she begins to fall for Luke. For another, they both have a talent for seeing faeries. And now that the Fair Folk have an idea of Dee's powers, they come out in force to turn her life into the stuff of tragic Irish ballads.

This is one of those dark adventures amid the outskirts of Faerie land, in which young mortals with their whole lives ahead of them are menaced by ageless beings who, at one point, are aptly described as "big, cruel children [who] want shiny new toys." Luke himself is not one of them, but he serves the Queen of Faerie in a ghastly role that proves just how dangerous they are. He has no choice, since his soul is held hostage, forcing him to do her bidding for thousands of deadly but undying years. It is up to Dee, who until lately never had the backbone to stand up to anyone, to fight for Luke's soul, and for James's life, in a confrontation with the Faerie Queen that steadily builds in intensity. Danger, romance, betrayal, the passion of folksong, and a fascinating range of breeds of fay, bubble together in a magical combination that may especially intrigue fans of Holly Black and Melissa Marr.

Maggie Stiefvater is also known for her "Wolves of Mercy Falls" trilogy, whose titles include Shiver, Linger, and Forever. Her latest novel as of 2011 is The Scorpio Races. For more information, check out the author's website.

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