Friday, June 29, 2012

Butcher, Llewellyn, Martinez

Proven Guilty
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the eighth novel of the Dresden Files, Chicago's number-one wizard detective experiences the downside of being forced (due to wizard losses in their ongoing war with the vampires) to become one of the Wardens. It's hard to fight the law when you're it, even if that means standing by and watching teenaged warlocks being executed for doing dark magic when no one has ever taught them any other kind.

The arterial blood of just such a warlock is still wet on Dresden's face when a fellow member of the White Council hands him a note hinting that he should look into evidence of even more dark magic being done in his jurisdiction. Look into it Dresden does, especially when a horror film fan convention turns into a series of scenes out of its own preferred genre. Someone has been doing dark magic, tampering with the minds of young people connected with the event. The resulting aura of fear and suffering has drawn a nasty class of fairy from the Nevernever, creatures that inflict death and madness while feeding off the terror that they cause.

But they're not Dresden's biggest worry. A little higher on the list is the fact that the teenaged warlock to blame for all this is the eldest daughter of his best friend, the angelic knight Michael Carpenter. Little Molly has grown up into a tattooed, pierced, dayglo-haired, and completely untrained magic user, thanks to a power inherited from her tough but magically repressed mother Charity. Now the most vicious denizens of fairyland have Molly, and Dresden must go after her into the heart of Queen Mab's Winter Court, backed up by a deceptively cute Chicago Police detective, a sex vampire who happens to be his half-brother, and an armed-for-bear Charity Carpenter who, when it comes to defending her brood, often seems the scariest of the lot.

But even if they can make it back from a frozen fairyland full of trolls, fetches, and other gruesome apparitions, Dresden must face his biggest worry of all: bringing Molly before the White Council to be judged for her crimes against the laws of magic. The only way to save her life may be to put his own life on the line.

So, it's just another case for a hardboiled sleuth whose mysteries always come packed with magic, action, tantalizing hints of romance, and multiple threats attacking from different directions at the same time. I mean, I don't even have room to discuss who it is that captures Dresden and tries to sell him on eBay. Or how Harry allows himself to be played in order to give his side a slight advantage in its war with the blood-sucking Red Court. Or how many ways it can help to have a furry friend like Dresden's Tibetan temple dog, Mouse. You'll just have to read the book to find all that out. And then you'll find it hard to resist the temptation to follow it up with Book 9, White Night.

White Night
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Who is Harry Dresden? In case you haven't read the first eight books in the Dresden Files, he's a powerful (but not very disciplined) wizard who offers his services as a private investigator, as a police consultant on cases touched by weirdness, and as a Warden of the White Council, a type of magical law-enforcement officer.

Harry's half-brother Thomas, meanwhile, is a scion of the White Court, from a clan of vampires that uses the power of sex to suck the life-force out of people. And though Harry has looked forward to the day when Thomas would get a job and move out of his dinky downstairs apartment, he worries that his brother may have fallen off the wagon and started feeding again. For one thing, Thomas hasn't been very communicative; in fact, he seems to be hiding something, such as what he is doing for a living. For another thing, he has been photographed alongside a young woman who has not been seen since—one of a series of women with a low-grade magical talent who have recently disappeared or died under suspicious circumstances. For a third thing, one of the apparent suicides turns out to have died in the throes of hunka-chunka, and that suggests a White Court killer.

Just when Dresden has almost made up his mind that he has to take down his own brother, something even bigger and more dangerous breaks loose—something involving undead, nearly indestructible ghouls—something dark and hellish, pulling the strings from behind a rip in the curtain of reality—something that could tilt the precarious balance of the wizards' war with the Red Court vampires (those are the real blood-suckers for you). In order to fight this and have any hope of living through it, Harry may have to call upon the power of a Fallen Angel whose silver denarius lies buried under a concrete slab in his sub-basement workshop, and whose psychic shadow embedded in his brain has endless resources to tempt Harry to take up the coin. So, as if it isn't enough hard work to protect humanity from a horde of rampaging demons, ghouls, vampires, and such, he must also get through the ultimate crisis of the soul. At the same time.

Clearly, life as a hard-boiled wizard isn't easy. But reading about it is, decidedly so. Like the previous books in this series, Book 9 has an abundance of thrilling action, paranormal spookiness, magical wonder, belly-shaking humor, and a tightly controlled but very real erotic appeal. Its hero is troubled, imperfect, always ready with a sarcastic retort, sometimes self-destructively impulsive, but essentially a good guy who will always place himself between evil and its intended victims. He's a guy's guy who likes beer, goes everywhere with his huge shaggy dog named Mouse, and appreciates the beauty of womankind. He's also—whatever the Sisterhood of the Cauldron may think, given that he is a gray-cloaked representation of The Man—an old-fashioned gentleman whose protective instincts, especially when women are in danger, coupled with his ongoing faithfulness to an ex-girlfriend, last seen two or three books ago fighting an urge to drink his blood, should make him appealing to women. And now that he has a teenaged apprentice following him around, hidden in the backseat of his VW Beetle under a cloak of invisibility, even kids are getting into the act. See? Everybody could love Dresden, if they give him a chance.

Small Favor
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this tenth novel of the Dresden Files, Chicago-based wizard detective Harry Dresden gets a job offer he can't refuse. Naturally, it would have something to do with crime kingpin Gentleman Johnny Marcone, who for his services to the magical community has been granted a kind of nationhood as a signer of the Unseelie Accords—other signatories of which include the various faerie and vampire courts, for example. So when Marcone is kidnapped by a sorcerer of tremendous power, Dresden is put on the case to rescue him.

The only puzzling thing about this is that the person hiring him is Queen Mab, sovereign of the Winter Court of faerie, who is herself a scarily powerful and not very nice magical being. And as long as Harry is working for the Winter Queen, the forces of Summer are out to get him—specifically, a series of billygoat-like toughs known as Gruffs. Yes, those guys. Laugh if you like, but they prove a surprisingly dangerous distraction while Harry goes about his real case. Each time he fights off one or two of them, he only succeeds in provoking one of their tougher, gruffer, older brothers to come after him next.

Meanwhile, Harry's quarry turns out to be an evil as ancient as the world itself: fallen angels who, using thirty silver denarii as talismans, transform their human followers into all-but-unkillable, killer monsters. These Denarians, also known as Nickelheads (Dresden's pet name for them), have Marcone. This means they will try first to tempt him, then to force him to take up one of the coins and become a fiend as deadly as themselves.

But that, Dresden finds out too late, is only the first step in an even bigger and dastardlier plan. As our wise-cracking, spell-hurling protagonist gathers allies for a confrontation with the Denarians, he plays right into the enemy's plan by bringing in the Archive, a 12-year-old girl who contains the collected knowledge of mankind. And as it turns out, the Archive is the one the Denarians are really after. Using a cocktail of treachery, brutality, and heavy-duty sorcery, the Nickelheads make off with Ivy too. And if they succeed in forcing a coin on her, the danger to human civilization would be unthinkable.

All this explains, perhaps, how Dresden manages to pull together such a diverse group of allies to plan a counterstrike so daring, so ingenious, that it may prove to be completely stupid. On the one hand, Harry is backed up by a couple of old-school knights wielding swords forged by angels and guided by the Almighty. On the other hand, his allies also include a Hell Hound, a Valkyrie, a mob enforcer, and a white court vampire who happens to be his half-brother. On the third and fourth hand are a cute female cop who has proven tough enough to survive in Dresden's world for a number of years, and a sexy female wizard who happens to be Dresden's superior in the order of Wardens, and who would probably wet her sword with Hell Hound, Valkyrie, or vampire blood if she knew who they really were. And maybe wizard blood to boot.

In spite of all this backup, at a crucial phase of the mission to rescue Ivy and Marcone, Dresden finds himself alone in the middle of Lake Michigan—alone, except for a rampaging family of Denarians and their heavily armed footsoldiers—racing to escape an island that has an evil presence of its own, and to keep a sackful of soul-destroying coins and an angelic sword from falling into the wrongest conceivable hands. Plus, naturally, the eldest-brother Gruff chooses just that time to show up, and he's got Harry's number. So once again Dresden gets to demonstrate his amazing combination of power, luck, attitude, and will to survive under what seem to be the most hopeless conditions he has ever faced. Don't get too concerned, though. This is only the tenth novel in a series whose fourteenth book can be expected at any time. Does Harry make it? Obviously! How does he make it? By magic, of course. You'd have to read it to believe it!

Bad, Bad Darlings
by Sam Llewellyn
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this sequel to Little Darlings, the three Darling children, formerly the scourge of nannies everywhere, have an adventure off the coast of Florida. It begins when their ship Kleptomanic, captained by their piratical mother, runs aground off Skeleton Island. It isn't the fault of the crew, though they are not so much seamen as burglars whose specialty is pretending to be blue-jawed nannies in order to gain access to their victims' homes. Nor is it strictly the fault of the chief engineer, even though he is a daft, deposed Icelandic prince who constantly talks to his teddy bear.

The person to blame is Papa Darling, a real estate swindler who isn't enjoying his second career as a lavatory cleaner. As soon as the old man who owns Skeleton Island sells the isle to the Darlings, Papa purloins the paperwork and joins forces with a villainous developer named Gomez Elegante. With a partner who routinely has people slathered in mayonnaise and fed to the crocodiles, Papa may be in over his head. So who will rescue him—and rescue Skeleton Island from him? Who but the three Darling children, their burglar/nanny comrades, and Dean the Wild Boy, who came with the island?

Many children (especially those familiar with British speech patterns) will enjoy this goofy, gruesome adventure in which very bad children are tamed by the magic of good food, and in which not-very-good parents are saved and kept together by their gutsy and resourceful kids. It has hijackings, sea and air chases, burglary capers, and a race between man and nature to trigger an environmental disaster. It teaches the surprising lesson that the handiest people to have around are nannies and burglars. Though not an especially well-structured or (in my opinion) coherently written book, it has its share of laughs, chills, and fun.

Gil's All Fright Diner
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

They're a couple of good old boys, traveling around together in a battered pickup. If that sounds like the opening line of a bromance, it's only because you haven't met Earl and Duke yet. One is a jerkweed vampire who sports an atrocious comb-over and a distinct lack of socially redeeming personality traits. The other is a werewolf whose anger-fueled fits of lycanthropy ruin more clothing than he can afford to replace. Like a paranormal odd couple, they barely get along with each other, and that only because they have nobody else.

All they're looking for is a place to bury Earl for the day, and an odd job or two to put fuel in the truck. Maybe a pint or two of blood wouldn't hurt. When they arrive in Rockwood, Texas, opportunity meets them in the form of a diner whose cook-waitress-owner Loretta needs some pipe laid down. Also, she could use some help driving off the nightly attack of zombies that has already emptied the neighboring cemetery. One or two more attacks, and the Sheriff will shut the diner down.

The zombies keep coming and coming until our heroes find the magical talisman that has been used to draw them. But then even worse minions of black magic begin to surface. All this is more than even a town like Rockwood, where irregular occurrences are a regular occurrence, can handle. And all of it is ultimately because of an unholy alliance between the evil soul who designed the diner and a teenage witch who desires power. Between them, they mean to unleash all kinds of ancient horrors on the earth—if only an undead nebbish, a white-trash werewolf, and a good-girl ghost can be kept out of the way long enough for their ritual to turn Gil's Diner into an open doorway to hell.

Parents concerned about potty-mouthed language, sexual content (I would call it "mature," but it isn't), and occult practices, should take this book's "adult/occult content advisory" into account before letting it babysit their kids. Apart from that, anyone who enjoyed Monster and Too Many Curses (as I did) should also get a kick out of Dallas-based author Martinez's irreverent take on the undead, magic, the zombie apocalypse, and the demon-horde ditto. Other Martinez titles that I plan to look up are In the Company of Ogres, A Nameless Witch, The Automatic Detective, Divine Misfortune, Chasing the Moon, and Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain.

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