fiction, review

Clean Sweep

While I’m still so far away from going on with Kate Daniels series, Ilona Andrews’ Clean Sweep has satisfied a little bit my thirst for their other works. It’s turned out quite unsatisfying, though, in some ways. Firstly published for commercial purpose at the end of 2013, it was originally a weekly free short story posted on Andrews’ official website, being worked on in the middle of their other projects and hectic familial life. I’m not really sure, however, if it’s the reason why Clean Sweep turns out flat to me, for I always believe in their talent for writing. It might have been just me who didn’t feel the click, but I seriously didn’t find it as exciting or even interesting as any Kate Daniels novels.

Dina Demille, a young girl running a Victorian bed-and-breakfast down in Avalon Subdivision, is no ordinary girl. She has a unique magic power and she is, too, the magic itself. On one light summer day, a dog has been murdered. It dies in the strangest fashion anyone can imagine. As an innkeeper, Dina knows that she’s supposed to keep neutral and stay out of it, but it’s been the third murder in the subdivision and she senses that what is to come will be even worse. With the help of Sean Evans, an ex-military newly arrived in their neighborhood, Dina sets to investigate what actually happens and who the perpetrator is. Their investigation into the stalker and its dahaka wreaking havoc in their peaceful territory leads them both to the dirty linen tightly kept by one of vampire families of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy, House of Krahr. The coming of the vampires to the Earth, with a definite goal to capture and arrest the dahaka, stirs things up. Dina has to protect and tend to Lord Soren, an injured vampire knight, and give sanctuary to his Marshal nephew, Arland. Things get more complicated as the neighborhood becomes painfully affected by the damage done by the dahaka, so Arland is forced to reveal what problem his family has. At the end of the day, Dina, Sean, and Arland have to work together to fight the enemy who is dangerous enough to kill them all.

The main character of Clean Sweep, the heroine here—Dina Demille—can be said to be a little bit like Kate Daniels. I might have been just imagining things, but throughout the reading I was quite sure that Dina is as tough and sarcastic as Kate. She’s also that kind of independent lone wolf who’s trying as best she can to refuse anybody else’s help, yet so determined to help others. Unless you want to take Dina’s physical appearance into account, then that will be a different case. Thankfully, Sean Evans is nothing like Curran Lennart. He is some kind of shapeshifter, yes, for his character is a werewolf, but he is not that rich, bossy alpha male who leads a vast pack of were-animals and carries a heavy need to be obeyed. Sean is more of a loner, a wanderer seeking always adventures. Odd as it may seem, but he is still looking for his true self, the true place where he should belong to. He’s confused, uncertain, quite troubled inside. As for Arland, I have to say that I didn’t quite catch his whole character. The Marshal of House Krahr is described as dashing, charming, and protective, but that is all. There is nothing, I’d rather say, special about him, not the way I see it anyway.

Interestingly, as much as their descriptions are quite out of my “expectation”, the characters making appearances in Clean Sweep are very literally unusual. There are not only humans or humans with magic, but also out-of-the-box werewolves and vampires. Both are described coming from other planets in the universe, arriving on Earth through a gate of some sort. Even the vampires here are not some blood-thirsty undead. They are cosmic soldiers with carnivorous nature, and yes, they are common human beings. It felt so strange to read such a mind-boggling description, but oddly enough, Andrews can explain it all the way through the narrative so clearly that the reader won’t find it difficult to understand. The same applies to the world-building. The Andrews seem to have committed to create something unusual, something that the reader may not find anywhere else, but their world is not hard to catch on to. It even looks magically simple to read. If there is one setting description I didn’t quite get, it was Baha-char. Perhaps I just couldn’t follow the road path of the market. Well, putting everything aside, I have to regretfully say that I am so disappointed by the run of the story. I don’t find it interesting to follow. It’s so dull and didn’t catch my attention at all. I even had to read it with full force in order to finish it. The opening scene is not captivating either, not inviting enough to drag me through the whole plot. If it was not for Andrews’ signature sarcasm scattered over the dialogues, I don’t think I could endure the storyline, however fast the pace is.

Overall, I have to say that I don’t really like Clean Sweep. The idea is okay, but the whole plot is just beyond my expectation, in a bad way. The narrative is still typically Ilona Andrews, and so is the main characterization, which is a big problem for me. I had hoped that Andrews would’ve come up with a different kind of person when it came to a different story, but my hope proved to be broken into pieces.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Magic Bleeds

Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series is definitely getting better over time. As the story advances, the snarky, quirky heroine brings the reader to a new bloody adventure with a personal touch to the prevailing case. The development of the story is getting closer and closer to the point where Kate’s blood and magic are put precariously on the line. With more action, gory scenes, romance, and new characters involved, Magic Bleeds, the fourth in the series, becomes a stunning work of urban fantasy I’m sure nobody wants to miss.

Steel Mary, some kind of a deadly plague, spreads mercilessly across Atlanta and kills several shapeshifters. The outbreak of the epidemic happens just as some suspicious undead mages come to the city and run amok in prominent public places. As an agent now working for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, Kate Daniels cannot just sit down and do nothing. Her sense of responsibility knocks her senseless and gets her into action. Only the case also involves Curran Lennart, the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the leader of the Pack and the king of all shapeshifters in the territory. It is no way that Kate wants to cooperate with a man who has just disappointed her and made her feel like a complete fool. But the unruly epidemic and the mysterious death befalling the shapeshifters need to be stopped, or else another one will die and the whole city will be covered in plagues, so a broken heart has to come second. A series of investigations and some digging into several myths involving plagues pull Kate deeper into the puzzling case, forcing her to once again deal with her secret blood and magic. When everything starts to be crystal clear, it turns out that the enemy she has to fight and kill is someone up from her own lineage, someone of her blood and magic, Erra. Their blood relationship complicates the case even more, making Kate have to decide to choose her own family, or the people she cares about and the one she loves.

Here in the fourth installment, Ilona Andrews decides to show Kate Daniels’ emotional weaknesses and vulnerability. She may look so tough, strong and sturdy, snarky and funny, headstrong and decisive on the outside, but when it comes to love, she’s not different from any other persons, or women for that matter. She has a soft spot, whether she likes it or not, refuses it or not. She does cry, and is unable to shove away the insecurity within her. Reading her character from book one to four, I can finally conclude that Kate Daniels is really a natural person, someone whom you may or may not like, someone who may or may not be good or bad. But the most shocking character in Magic Bleeds, to me, is definitely Saiman. Saiman is never a likeable person from the very first time. He’s always described as arrogant, deceitful, snobbish, mean, vengeful, and, above all, a disgusting pervert. But in one particular dialogue with Kate, he says something very interesting about humanity:

“Being human in our world is synonymous with being included into the framework of society. Humanity entitles one to certain rights and privileges, but also implies voluntary acceptance of laws and rules of conduct. It transcends mere biology. It’s a choice and therefore belongs solely to the individual. In essence, if a person feels they are human, then they are.”

I never thought, during my time reading Kate Daniels series up to this point, that a character like Saiman could say something so human and basic. It’s so astounding. And it just goes to show Andrews’ commitment to create completely human characters.

The plot of Magic Bleeds is considerably longer than the previous numbers, running a little bit slow at the beginning and then feeling steadily fast right after the first half of the book. And even after the conclusion of the case, there is still some problem to solve, draining more and more the reader’s emotions and energy to finish it. The epilogue is, luckily, as cooling-down as ever and is the real turning point in Kate’s and Curran’s relationship. I would say that the whole package of the narrative is wonderful, with its plus and minus points that don’t necessarily have to spark any arguments. I will not say that I like to take a very long journey to finish a book, but in this case, I didn’t mind because the after-reading result was so satisfying. Andrews add just the right amount of romanticism, stick to the same quantity of humor, and increase the violence and the bloody scenes to a necessary level, although they made me weak in the knees at some point. The use of the Jewish mythology and stories from Bible is very much interesting, blended very well into the core idea of the story. I don’t know anything about both, I must admit, so I’m not in a position to say whether they’re correctly used or not. But one thing I’m sure of, Magic Bleeds has all the positive aspects of the three previous installments combined.

Overall, Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bleeds is truly a great read. I liked the idea, the plot, however long it might be, the strong narrative, the romantic aspect. The characters are more complex as well. So, I dare say that this book is really recommended.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Magic Strikes

Magic Strikes can be said to be the turning point in Kate Daniels series, where every aspect in the package improves significantly, the narrative, the plot, the basic idea, the use and the description of the myth, the characterizations. I cannot say that this is the best so far, but one thing that I’m sure of is that Ilona Andrews have put a lot of effort to get their third installment of the series better than the first two, and it proves to be so.

Once again, Kate Daniels has to face a great challenge when Derek, one of her shapeshifter friends, is found almost dead with a broken body and an injured face, unfortunately without his Lyc-V being able to regenerate both. No one knows who’s done it. The mysterious case swirling around the young werewolf becomes ever so complicated when Jim keeps a secret about something that the Beast Lord doesn’t even know. As it happens, that something turns out to be a violation of the Pack Law Jim and Derek do on purpose, which results in Derek nearly losing his life. Kate can’t help but plunge herself into dangerous, deadly fights in the middle of Midnight Games arena, where she and the Pack’s shapeshifters have to deal with powerful rakshasas armed by Sultan of Death. The presence of Hugh d’Ambray, Roland’s Warlord, in the arena to watch the fights and make sure the rakshasas win and kill all the Pack’s members involved makes Kate wonder who actually Sultan of Death is. Hugh himself always keeps an eye on Kate, suspicious of her blood and lineage. Kate, who has always been keeping her blood and magic a secret, finally has to reveal her real identity for the sake of her friends.

Kate Daniels readers must have known Jim from the first and the second installments, but here his character and appearance, in my opinion, stand out more than before. It might be for the mistake he makes and the heavy burden of responsibility he tries to bear on his own shoulder upon which the entire story is based. He does everything in his power to mend his past mistakes, and Curran describes him as a responsible person who will not take his failure at doing his duty easily, even if he has to betray his boss and best friend.

Interestingly, it’s not only Jim whose character gets elaborated more through his deed and decisions, Raphael and Derek also make more appearances with their own conflicts and behaviors. Despite his lack of action and dialogues along 1/3 of the book, Derek’s character looks clearer by what he’s done and the subtle description of his emotion. He seems a very sentimental young man, and willing to do anything in order to be taken seriously as a grown-up man. But it’s Raphael who really captured my attention. I found him funny and romantic, but not in a cheesy way. Not that it is surprising, since it’s been very clear from the start that he has an undoubted ability to snatch a woman’s heart in a way that you cannot resist.

As I’ve said earlier, Magic Strikes is way better than its two predecessors. It has a more interesting case, a denser plot without being too hasty in its run to the climax, and the narrative develops just in the right progress and doesn’t seem like Andrews force it to unfold the way it does. No wonder this book is thicker than the first two. The series of battle scenes is arranged steadily to bring the reader to the bloody, thrilling climax that is guaranteed to make them gasp and heady at the same time. Those scenes, and the violence emanating from them, are so much better and more detailed, bloodier if I may add. The way to the end of the book, including the epilogue, is very well executed, too, with a cooling-down scene to make the reader grin as always. So narratively, I can say that Magic Strikes is so much better written. Linguistically, it still bears the Andrews’ typical writing style: coarse but fun, witty and snarky, blatant and straightforward, yet some of their sentences are a bit dramatic. It is understandable, though, looking at the sad scenes they insert at some points. Most interestingly, Kate’s and Curran’s love story starts to hike up to another level, and so does Andrea’s and Raphael’s. But I’m not going to talk about it further, because there are some strange scenes that become my concern. I find it confusing when Kate doesn’t seem to recognize Raphael as Aunt B’s son who carries a shotgun in the first book, and thus Raphael has to remind her of that. What’s more, there’s a certain scene that I am sure taking place in Jim’s safe house, but when Dali, the Pack’s Asian mythology expert, comes to  said scene the setting suddenly changes into Kate’s apartment. This is just not right. Or did I miss something?

Overall, Magic Strikes is actually a very great work of fiction. It has everything a reader needs to satisfy their reading thirst. Had it not had holes in its plot, I would’ve given it a better rating. But I couldn’t, because a clear course of events is important to me.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Magic Burns

Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series continues in a second installment, Magic Burns. This time, Andrews focus on a Celtic myth and the reincarnation of gods. The description of the “alternate world” they set up as the background develops enormously along with the development of the plot, despite the not-so-interesting idea of the story. It still has a strong atmosphere, thankfully, and some nice humor to entertain the reader.

In the middle of her mission to retrieve the Pack’s secret map, Kate Daniels meets a street kid named Julie whose mother is missing. Julie’s mother, Jessica, is a worshipper of the god Morrigan, and her disappearance brings out an unsettling suspicion in Kate’s mind. So she sets out to find her, but there is no fruit of it. Instead, Kate and Julie are attacked in Kate’s apartment by some undead mermaids and a strange, monstrous creature. That only strengthens Kate’s suspicion over Red, Julie’s neglectful boyfriend, and the necklace he gives to the girl. Somehow, the attack, Julie’s mysterious necklace, and her mother disappearance seem to connect with each other, forming a certain path which is still difficult to know where it leads. On the other hand, the Pack’s map keeps missing and the thief, Bran, is not easy to catch for his ability to disappear. Every clue she gets forces Kate to think that everything that happens has something to do with the flare, the gods Jessica worships, and Bran.

Here, we are introduced to the significant supporting characters that from this book on will help the story of the whole series develop. First we meet Andrea, Kate’s knight friend at the Order of Merciful Aid who has to hide her real self and identity from the world. She’s nothing like Kate, but she’s just as funny. As a beastkin shapeshifter, she’s described as beautiful and unusually pretty-shaped. Her beauty particularly attracts Raphael, one of the Pack and a werehyena. Just like Andrea is described as beautiful, Raphael is a handsome, gorgeous, heart-melting man with charm no one can resist. He is depicted as sly and slick, playboy and easy to get along with, but he is also a Mama’s boy, a nature that I don’t understand why he should have. Last but not least, Andrews introduce us to Julie, the street-kid orphan. I cannot say anything but that Julie is an average teenager, curious, stubborn, acting like she knows it all and in dire need of love and protection. What makes her interesting is that her presence puts Kate in a difficult position where she has to play parents when she herself is a troubled, stubborn kid.

Magic Burns has a better plot than that of Magic Bites, the flow of the entire narrative runs as smooth as silk, if I may say so. Starting from the hilarious opening, which then goes slowly to the introduction of the case, the storyline seems to snake its way through the detailed scenes and descriptions. The featuring side elements appear to be blended so completely into the main course of events that the reader won’t realize that those are fragments added to the narrative to take them to the climax. Kate’s and Curran’s relationship also develops in a nice and steady progress, stepping up a notch to the next level, though I cannot say it’s already romantic. What becomes a disappointment here in the second installment is that it does not have a magically great basic idea. I didn’t find the core of the story as interesting as the first, thus reading it didn’t get me excited. The battle scenes are also disappointing. They didn’t snatch my brain as I expected it to and left me thinking that it’s not an epic at all. The violence emanating from those scenes is not as strong as I found it in Magic Bites, but what really shocked me was the description of how great Kate’s craving for blood in the final battle scene. It is so obvious that Kate inherits her father’s bad blood, I know, but reading her killing people in cold blood was so horrifying.

All in all, I can say that I liked Magic Burns, despite its obvious weaknesses. The humor could still trigger my spontaneous laugh and very much entertain me. Even though I don’t really like the story, I love the way it is created and written into a narrative form. It has detailed characterizations as well, and the cooling-down ending is certainly Andrews’ biggest plus point here.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Magic Bites

When it comes to urban fantasy, I understand that Ilona Andrews is one of the major voices ever considered. Their Kate Daniels series has expanded into a number of smash hits. Magic Bites, the first in the series, was published in 2007 and became the starting point of the slowly but surely, fantastically built “alternate world” of Kate Daniels, the quirky yet determined heroine under the spotlight. It has an unusual basic idea, dark and gory atmosphere, and sense of humor I never thought would be fit for something like this.

When she is all alone gambling against her bottle of wine in the middle of the night, Kate Daniels is brought some bad news by her least favorite Master of the Dead that her guardian, Greg Feldman, has mysteriously died. Unable to wrap it around her mind, she dashes right away to the Order of Merciful Aid, where Greg was once a knight, and does her subtle investigation to confirm the truth. Further, the path she takes leads her to an awful suspicion around the Pack and the People at the same time, the two most powerful sides in Atlanta. Oddly, they are blaming each other. The fact that her investigation is going nowhere and that the People are reluctant to cooperate drives her to take a helping hand from the Pack and, especially, the arrogant, powerful Beast Lord. And when everything they gather takes them to Olathe, the People’s leader’s concubine and warrior, the case seems to come to an end. But it’s apparently not, and there’s something fishy that a certain person, hidden behind his identity and reputation, is actually the mastermind of all the murders happened. This mastermind knows very well what blood Kate is made of and wants it to gain its magnificent power.

Here I was introduced to an unusual creation of a leading female character I never thought I would encounter in a book. Kate Daniels is not an ordinary “white” character, although she is undoubtedly the heroine. She has naturally human weaknesses that oddly mix well with her heroic behavior. If you look at her character closely, perusing carefully the way Andrews describe her, she is actually a coward, a lone wolf, a selfish, headstrong, annoyingly snarky person. She’s not a character readers would adore without realizing her good qualities, namely funny, physically strong, independent, determined, and always there to help others. If any character could be complicated, then Kate Daniels is not just another complicated figure. She despises control but she’s cooperative, she’s individualistic but helpful, she’s emotionally vulnerable but determinedly strong, she’s not perfect in any way but she’s fabulously heroic. She’s like a heroine everyone will hate to love.

So unfortunately, Kate Daniels is not coupled to a leading male character as unusual as she is. If this is a paranormal romance, then Curran Lennart, the Beast Lord, is just the same as any other man I’ve ever encountered in the genre. He’s physically muscular and gorgeous, powerful, rich (for a shapeshifter), and seems to have the world under his feet. But, first and foremost, he is such an arrogant control freak. The only thing that differentiate him from other male characters I know so far in romances is that he is a shapeshifter, if that helps any.

Only Magic Bites is not a romance, much less a paranormal romance, although it is widely mistaken being so. It’s an action-packed, full-of-myth, violent urban fantasy with a touch of not-so-romantic love story. Andrews do not make the hero and heroine jump into the sack the minute they meet. Instead, the husband-and-wife writing team builds the connection between both from the very start, slowly through the course of events they narrate along the book. And speaking of the narrative, I feel a bit awkward about it. It might be the short plot which in turn makes the run of the story seem too hasty. How Andrews bring the reader to the final battle is also so simply ordinary that it only looks like any other battle scene without any significance. However, the world building and the application of all the strange terms are very well written I could feel the otherness of the unusual fantasy background they describe. They don’t let the reader misunderstand what they’re talking about, they explain and elaborate quite briefly yet clearly all the things the reader needs to know. In short, I can say Magic Bites has wonderful descriptions. Only I personally mind about the language. Too much foul language. Not that I never encountered such a thing in all my reading experience, but I think it’s just too much. On the positive side, the humor is just what I like, fresh, smart, annoyingly witty, though a little bit snarky sometimes.

On the whole, reading Magic Bites was a fun experience. I’d rather say that it’s not something extraordinary, but it offers you something unique and special, something that is worth your attention.

Rating: 3.5/5