Book Review: House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

I enjoyed The Year of The Witching on audio book, which I listened to after finding out about Alexis Henderson’s newest release, but I liked House of Hunger even better, although it had its issues.

I liked the main character, Marion Shaw, and found her plight of abusive brother and abusive workplace to seek a better life compelling, if derivative. Scrappy Marion doing whatever it takes to survive intrigued me. The universe Henderson created as a backdrop was also interesting, the democratic South with lots of poverty and income inequality versus the aristocratic North with its royal houses and debauchery. Marion answers an advertisement in the paper for a bloodmaid, which the south views as nothing more than whores but in the North are held with a creepy reverence. Marion, used to servanthood, views the role as a highly paid servant and jumps at the chance to leave Prane behind. I thought she should have questioned a lot of things more at the beginning; for a seasoned street thief she seems entirely too trusting and naive.

It turns out the source of the power of the North is blood in this fresh take on vampirism, where Northerners are human but not quite human with a hunger for blood. Marion is thrust into the world of bored Northerners with their lavish sex parties and becomes besotted with the Countess she is contracted to, the mysterious Lisavet with an odd blood disorder.

I felt the middle of the book really dragged, and Marion went from curiosity to obsession in too much of a lightswitch. It got bogged down in petty noble games and female infighting between the bloodmaids. Had the standard problem of the saggy middle where the author seems to have just lost the train of ideas. But the ending really picked up. I’ve read enough books classified as gothic horror that just weren’t scary, or the horrors in the book were just horrible things and there was no sense of dread or suspense. By the time the pace picks up, the dark twist on the romance between Lisavet and Marion and the whole bloodmaid operation is properly scary.

I also was confused about what properties blood had that made it so special to Northerners. It felt like more of a fetish to me than anything that had truly special powers. The blood didn’t seem to give them any power or have any magical properties. The reason for taking the blood was never properly explained other than some random folk tale legend that didn’t really make much sense.

Other than that I enjoyed this book, despite its predictability and familiar tropes. If you love sapphic gothic you’ll be entertained.

Book Review: Sweetland by Dareth Pray

I’ve had such a spotty track record with indie novels this year, hit or miss and generally veering on the miss, that when I run across the gems I have to leave a review. I really enjoyed “Sweetland” by Dareth Pray, a gripping thriller about a CIA operative going deep undercover in a domestic terrorism plot.

I loved the author’s character development. Erin Stark was as promised, a badass spy woman from beginning to end. I liked the very plausible take of a highly organized crew of redneck militiamen and fringe far right groups annexing Tennessee and engaging in sex trafficking, infiltrating local sheriff’s offices and the far reaches of government along the way. It spoke to the times and a threat I think isn’t taken seriously enough. Though in the real life scenario I am not sure the government would have the means to fight back, but that’s the pessimist in me.

I could tell that the author had done her research or had some intelligence training and experience because the descriptions of intelligence work rang with authenticity, although the pacing got somewhat bogged down by granular detail on operational methods. I also enjoyed the use of present tense that put the reader into a more immediate sense of place with the action. In some of the present tense sections, however, there was some distracting tense switching inconsistencies that could have been better edited, but largely the author’s copy was well edited.

Overall, this was a fun, fast-paced ride. I usually expect glamorous international missions from spy thrillers and enjoyed instead the fresh take on a homegrown mission in the heartland. This author is definitely one to watch.

Book Review: The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

I fully admit this is one of those books that I splurged on the hardback edition because the cover is so beautiful. More than that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by Slavic and Russian folklore and history, and the tale of Baba Yaga. This is “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a very prescient historical fantasy by an ethnic Russian American author and lawyer.

I really enjoyed this one, mostly how the author was able to deftly weave the stories of the old pagan religion of Russia in with myths of witches and magic and the encroachment of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is told as the real story of Yaga, a half-goddess, half-mortal vedma, or witch, who prefers to think of herself as a healer who communes with animals, and her connection with Anastasia, the tsarina and wife of the tsar who would become Ivan the Terrible. But Ivan the Terrible is manipulated not by court politics but by forces older than any of the new Russia can possibly understand.

Even though this was fiction, I found it endlessly fascinating how even in the 1500s, Russia’s history was dark, dystopian and dominated by bloodthirsty autocrats, carrying echoes of today. I liked how the author described Yaga’s magic; she described the old gods in a unique, non-tropey way, as if they are only real if you believe in them, and the belief and the memory of the people is fading. I liked how this was a woman-led fantasy in which the women were the ones in the story who really had the power and influence behind the scenes, while wrestling with their own demons.

I did not like how some of the narrative felt like a forced sequential rush of events instead of being present and immersed in Yaga’s world. It felt a bit like the author was stampeding to get from one phase of her life to the next, but there were some wonderful descriptions of gods and a conflicted love for Russia and the old ways that kept me riveted till the end.

Book Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Wow. The thrilling conclusion to the miraculous Green Bone Saga left me breathless till the very end, not wanting it to end and to find myself torn asunder from this incredible universe. Typically I am wary of fantasy series and have a bit of a stigma about trilogies; so often they are publishing’s way to make a commercial success of an idea that only has the stamina for one book. This was thankfully not the case with Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, the third and final book of this gripping and adventure-filled Asian-inspired fantasy series. 

In this book, a 713-page whopper, we are once again thrust into the fortunes, tragedies and loves of the Kaul family, the leaders of the No Peak clan as it seeks to assert itself in the geopolitical tides beyond Kekon’s borders. A now familiar and well-loved cast of characters has become as familiar as a family we’ve grown up with, watching with awe as they earn our trust, respect and loyalty. Make no mistake, I’m a Green Bone loyalist. I am a complete and total nerd for this series. I’m not even a big fan of martial arts flicks or gangster movies and books, but this series is so much more than that. This series won my heart and makes me want to be green in the soul. 

In the third book we watch Anden find love, become a doctor, use his influence with the clan as a way to win international respect for jade medicine, and soar to even greater heights, all without using jade to become the killer he had once feared he’d become at age 18. We follow Shae as she finds love with her longtime advisor, gives birth to a daughter, and realizes that what makes jade special is not the gemstones themselves and their unique power, but the integrity of the warriors who wear them. We also see her grow the Weather Man’s office into a complex, powerful international enterprise. And finally there is Hilo, who started out as a hotheaded, reckless young Pillar and has since evolved into a compassionate leader who commands respect even from his enemies. 

That’s the core part of this family but then it has grown, to include Lan’s son Niko, Hilo’s children, and others. One of the things I really love about this series is its ability to make you care about even minor, unlikeable characters who have done despicable things. We meet Bero, for example, the jade-addicted youngster eager to throw his weight around, in the opening scene of the first book, and that thread is carried through to the final scene, but not in the way you would expect. Even cruel baruken gangsters (half-blood jade-wearing mobsters) spill the beans to protect their secret families. 

In this new world the clans must contend with geopolitical forces and encroaching modernity, like the radical terrorists of the Clanless Future Movement, who see the clans and the Green Bone way of life as obsolete. You see not only characters evolve, with the stakes raised ever higher until you’re clinging to the story with a torrent of emotions, but the clans themselves. 

Infusing an impressive cast of characters with such warmth takes great skill and sophistication. Then there is the Green Bone way of life itself. Foreigners see it as barbaric and outdated, but when you become immersed in it, when you follow everyone’s story arcs and the bold, immutable dignity with which they lead their lives, you realize that this is a way of life that is noble, and one worth preserving even as the irrepressible tide of modernity seeks to crush it. Like Shae, you realize that what makes No Peak rise above its enemies and secure its place on the world stage is not any special advantage other than family. It is a family filled with unconditional love for its disparate, unwanted, cast-aside parts, and these parts fit into a puzzle that propels No Peak, and jade itself, into a place of destiny. 

The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master, as the oath goes. I swear allegiance as a reader and a fan. 


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