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Book Review: Trouble with the Cursed by Kim Harrison

Title: Trouble with the Cursed

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: Hollows #14

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Rachel Morgan, witch-born demon, has one unspoken rule: take chances, but pay for them yourself. With it, she has turned enemies into allies, found her place with her demon kin, and stepped up as the subrosa of Cincinnati—responsible for keeping the paranormal community at peace and in line. Life is . . . good? Even better, her best friend, Ivy Tamwood, is returning home. Nothing’s simple, though, and Ivy’s not coming alone. The vampires’ ruling council insists she escort one of the long undead, hell-bent on proving that Rachel killed Cincy’s master vampire to take over the city. Which, of course, Rachel totally did not do. She only transformed her a little. With Rachel’s friends distracted by their own lives and problems, she reaches out to a new ally for help—the demon Hodin. But this trickster has his own agenda. In the end, the only way for Rachel to save herself and the city may be to forge a new understanding with her estranged demon teacher, Al. There’s just one problem: Al would sell his own soul to be rid of her. . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I love spending time with Rachel Morgan.

As the series initially ended at book 13, these latest three novels have felt like bonus books (continuing the storyline before book 13’s epilogue). It’s always a joy to read more in a series you thought ended. And I have to say, these revamped (pun) books are every bit as good as the rest of the series.

Anything to do with the demons in this world, and I’m so there. I love their unpredictability and enigma quality that always has me guessing who’s side they’re on (well, they’re probably always on their own side, it’s just a matter of whether or not Rachel’s agenda lines up with theirs… it’s an ongoing conflict I just can’t get enough of). In these recent novels we’ve explored them more than ever before, and it’s highly satisfying.

Million Dollar Demon (#15) was awesome, but the ending was a bit lackluster compared to others in the series. This one, however, was a grand slam of events that had me up into the wee hours finishing. I love it when books careen to the end. The book also introduced a few new plot points throughout that I can’t wait to see expanded on later. Harrison really knows how to keep hooking my interest with new elements.

There’s a writing tool some storytellers use to perpetuate the plot that drives me crazy. The whole “I’m too emotionally distraught to have a two minute conversation with you… one that could save everyone a lot of trouble” is one I’ve always found unrealistic. Most people tend to WANT to talk about the major things that have affected them in life, given the proper opportunity and safety of expression. Especially if said information is critical in someone else’s decision-making. But in this case, that would’ve cut out almost two books of conflict and we wouldn’t have had a story. So, while I wish things had been presented in a different way, I can begrudgingly admit that I still enjoyed the time we spent getting to the point of revelation. There were enough other good things going on, so I can overlook its use… but I still hate it lol.

At this point I’m committed to reading any new Harrison book that pops up and hope we’re not quite finished with this series yet (some research shows there will be at least two more books). I’ve no idea what direction those new books will take, but the groundwork laid to this point in the series assures that I’ll enjoy the ride.

Recommendation: if you want an urban fantasy with slower pacing, great characters, intricate spell work, and a story that only gets better with time, this is a great pick. While this isn’t quite my favorite series in the genre, I can say with confidence that it contains my single favorite moments within the genre. Good stuff. :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Title: Dead Until Dark

Author: Charlaine Harris

Series: Sookie Stackhouse #1

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Sookie Stackhouse is just a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. Until the vampire of her dreams walks into her life-and one of her coworkers checks out….

Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend isn’t such a bright idea. -Goodreads

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The Review:

Well, butter my butt and call me a southern biscuit – I enjoyed the hell out of Dead Until Dark.

This was my second read-through of this book (I’d never continued beyond it last time), and it’s funny how time and reading experience can change how you feel about the same exact story. The first time I read it (3 stars) I was only just dipping my toes into urban fantasy. I’d no idea what marked a good one from a bad one and was kind of experimenting with them all. This time around, I’ve read (and loved) a fair few, and the quality of the writing and the richness of the story here stood out to me in a way it hadn’t before. I loved it.

What struck me is the complete immersion into Sookie’s viewpoint of the world. She’s such an atypical character – not the brightest, nor the most experienced, but loving and completely earnest in everything she does. I find her absolutely charming. Her character was strengthened even more by the exceptional audio narration of Johanna Parker – I highly recommend going the audiobook route with this one.

I remember discussing this book with my best friend early on, and she mentioned it had a lot of sex in it. I was surprised because I only remembered one sex scene in the whole thing. What I was actually remembering was an entire like 50 page chunk of the book! So yeah, these are a lot steamier than your usual urban fantasy series. However since the plot and overall focus of the book remained on the murder mystery and Sookie dealing with a bunch of external supernatural conflicts, the addition of all the sexual content did not make it feel like a paranormal romance. That’s a distinction I always find very important when evaluating these types of stories.

Overall, I’m thrilled I now have another excellent UF to keep me occupied for a while (as I am UTD on all things Briggs, Harrison, Butcher, and Andrews). I can totally see how the excellent storytelling here was picked up for a tv series. The books are so strong and vibrant that they really didn’t have to change much in the adaptation. At least not initially.

Recommendations: if you love UF but haven’t yet tried this series – give it a go! The mystery was a lot grittier than you’ll find in most and the characters are a hoot. One of the most delightful things I’ve read in a while.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green

Title: The Best Thing You Can Steal

Author: Simon R. Green

Series: Gideon Sable #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: Welcome to London, but not as you know it. A place where magics and horror run free, wonders and miracles are everyday things, and the dark streets are full of very shadowy people . . .
Gideon Sable is a thief and a con man. He specializes in stealing the kind of things that can’t normally be stolen. Like a ghost’s clothes, or a photo from a country that never existed. He even stole his current identity. Who was he originally? Now, that would be telling. One thing’s for sure though, he’s not the bad guy. The people he steals from always have it coming. Gideon’s planning a heist, to steal the only thing that matters from the worst man in the world. To get past his security, he’s going to need a crew who can do the impossible . . . but luckily, he has the right people in mind. The Damned, the Ghost, the Wild Card . . . and his ex-girlfriend, Annie Anybody. A woman who can be anyone, with the power to make technology fall in love with her. If things go well, they’ll all get what they want. And if they’re lucky, they might not even die trying . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

As you can tell by my knee-jerk review above, I needed some time and space from this book to assess it in a more mature manner.

Obviously I didn’t enjoy The Best Thing You Can Steal, but I didn’t spend the entire book not liking it. I was actually quite on board at the beginning when the main character was taking a ton of time to assemble his team of thieves. I thought the setup a bit long-winded (instead of hinting at backstories and keeping some details as surprises for later, everyone’s history was laid out and explained extensively), but was willing to ride it out because the book was promising the heist of a century! I love seeing the legwork for stuff like that.

“And we set of with speed for the bright lights of London. A car full of weird with a ghost on top.” <-I loved this quote, and felt really excited to embark with them at the time.

But then the moment arrived. When we finally get to go along with the characters as the do the big things. And I was so, so let down. For me, the main appeal of the novel was the promise of a good heist, and a good heist it was not. First off, the whys behind the heist weren’t convincing as reasons to put everyone at risk. But people do weird things all the time, so that’s a point I overlooked. Secondly, it’s not much fun when there are no challenges and everyone is perfectly prepared for all of the obstacles they’ll face. It’s ideal, of course, but it lacks a certain drama to engage the reader.

And to that point I have a side rant. The team of characters Gideon was assembling for the heist was fun, but one of the members was a woman who had a special ability: computers respond to her and will do anything to please her. How convenient.

It just felt so contrived. Especially since I can’t recall anyone else referencing or having special abilities in the story. So by all accounts, she’s the only one around with “powers” and omgsh how wonderful it is that they happen to be exactly what a thief would need to get past a security system without having to spend any time figuring out how to bypass them organically. All of the other supernatural elements and characters fit, but seeing as this character was already a master of disguise, adding the technology powers in felt like an afterthought. It almost would’ve been better to set up the world without technologies for whatever fabricated reason made sense, and go from there. Rant over.

Finally, the actual thing they found when the heist was complete… was so stupid. I don’t know how else to say it. It made me feel like I’d wasted all the time spend reading the book just to end up where we did. Like, I was promised one thing and delivered something completely different. It actually made me mad, which I’m laughing at now because I don’t usually get that worked up over books. Something about this one must’ve hit a nerve.

Overall, the journey was a bit slow, but the characters were fun and I appreciated the lighthearted heist story I was getting. But taking time to read the endless pages of buildup only to have a very unsatisfying payoff left me feeling resentful. Like I said before, at least it was evoking, if nothing else.

Recommendations: if you’re picking this up because you want a light urban fantasy with some cheeky supernatural characters, this is a good pick. If, like me, you wanted to experience an amazing heist because the Gentleman Bastards series still doesn’t have a release date for the fourth book and you’re getting desperate for that type of story… this one will not make you feel better.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Darkness Rising by Keri Arthur

Title: Darkness Rising

Author: Keri Arthur

Series: Dark Angels #2

Genre: Paranormal Romance

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Risa will go to any lengths to avenge her mother’s murder—even if it means making a pact with the most evil vampire she’s ever met. Lethal and powerful, Madeline Hunter is leader of the vampire council, and will put her resources behind finding the killer—for a price. The venerable vampire requires the assistance of Risa’s psychic powers. Quid pro quo. Someone—or something—is targeting the elders of the local council, cursing the immortal vampires to rapidly age, sink into madness, and die. Risa must track down the vengeful being responsible. But Risa’s father, a rogue Aedh priest, also enlists her in a dangerous mission. And not even the great Madeline Hunter may be able to protect her from the shadowy forces that desire nothing less than Risa’s destruction. -Goodreads

The Review:

It has only been a week and I’ve already forgotten what I read.

I’m still reconciling how my tastes have changed since I first read Darkness Unbounded five years ago, and how that one lost almost 3 stars on the reread. This was my first venture into Darkness Rising, and my grand plans for bulldozing through the series this month have been derailed… I didn’t love it.

The book didn’t have a lot of substance. It didn’t deepen the characters. It didn’t broaden the plot. The sex scenes were hard to read. And probably the most disappointing: the main conflict was simple but at the same time confusing. I kept thinking I’d missed something. Like, why are we suddenly in the sewers? What’s the whole point of this exercise? WHY do the characters have to do anything about this in the first place? It all seemed so contrived. The overall conflict lacked enough substance to sustain the story. It was was very similar to a middle grade novel when it came to flat villains, surface-level conflicts, and lack of character depth.

Now, granted, I’m evaluating this alongside urban fantasy works that I’ve loved. This is in fact a paranormal romance, which have an entirely different plot focus, story purpose, and target audience. Even though I avoid the genre these days, I picked this one up because I liked Riley Jensen, and loved the author’s City of Light urban fantasy series. But… here’s the thing. For a paranormal romance with the love story and sex scenes as the main overall arc, it wasn’t even satisfying compared to others I’ve read in the genre. I can see where the author is headed with things, but to evaluate just what has been presented so far, it left me wanting.

Recommendations: urban fantasy readers, don’t even give this one a second glance. Not only is it a continuation spinoff of the Riley Jensen series with spoilers, but it’s also written more for the paranormal romance crowd. Paranormal romance readers: this one missed on all accounts for me.

I’d recommend these other similar books instead:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Darkness Unbound by Keri Arthur

Title: Darkness Unbound

Author: Keri Arthur

Series: Dark Angel #1

Genre: Paranormal Romance

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Being half werewolf and half Aedh, Risa Jones can enter the twilight realms between life and death and see the reapers, supernatural beings that collect the souls of the dead. But she soon makes a terrifying discovery: Some sinister force is stealing souls, preventing the dead from ever knowing the afterlife. Reapers escort souls—not snatch them—but Risa is still unnerved when a reaper shadows her in search of someone Risa has never met: her own father, an Aedh priest, who is rumored to be tampering with the gates of hell for a dark purpose. With the help of her “aunt”—half-werewolf, half-vampire Riley Jenson—and an Aedh named Lucian who may have lost his wings but none of his sex appeal, Risa must pursue whatever shadowy practitioner of blood magic is seizing souls, and somehow stop her father . . . before all hell breaks loose. -Goodreads

The Review:

Darkness Unbound unfortunately did not hold up well on my reread.

I picked it up again as a refresher before finally continuing the series. The first time around I was super excited for it. The Riley Jensen series had wrapped up and the prospect of getting more in that world delighted me. I must have been riding the high from the Riley books (which now I’m nervous to reread because of how dramatically my rating dropped for this one), and I’m pretty sure I gave this one a high rating because of the nostalgia it evoked. It does include all of the old beloved characters, so it felt like a fresh continuation. And at the moment, that’s still the only thing it really had going for it.

The book is a quintessential paranormal romance. The sex/romance aspect of the plot was the most prominent and all the other components were underdeveloped. I very much prefer the more robust conflict-driven urban fantasy market. I don’t care one way or another if there are sex scenes in those books, but in this case they were so over-the-top I couldn’t help but laugh.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you like paranormal romance, this was actually an okay read. And what’s more, I’ve read enough from Arthur to know she can dazzle me (I loved her City of Light series), so I’m probably going to keep reading to see if the series develops beyond the basic “seen it a dozen times before” structure.

For the time being, I think the main character, Risa, was relying on the novelty of her persona from the Riley series and I didn’t get a clear sense of who she is and what she wants. There was no connection at all for me for these characters. The conflict also read a little thin. Super convenient things and 2-dimensional villains. I say again, had this read been for obligation or for any other author, I probably would’ve DNFed. But I thought I considered myself a long-time fan and I already own the series, so I’m going to give the rest a go. Also, for what it’s worth, the last chapter was incredibly compelling…

Recommendations: if you’re a paranormal romance fan, this is right up your alley, and in fact a mite better written than most I’ve read (consider diving into the Riley Jensen series first). If, like me, you prefer urban fantasy novels, this will leave you wanting a more developed plot and less romance.

Booktube Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiOtZk0Mke0

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Million Dollar Demon by Kim Harrison

Million Dollar Demon by Kim Harrison

Title: Million Dollar Demon

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: The Hollows #15

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: To save the city, Rachel Morgan will need to show some teeth in the next Hollows novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Kim Harrison. The new master vampire of Cincinnati has arrived . . . and she wants Rachel Morgan out. No matter where Rachel goes, Constance is there–threatening Rachel’s allies, causing city-wide chaos, and, to add insult to injury, even forcing Rachel out of her current quarters. Ever since Rachel found a way to save the souls of vampires, the old undead’s longtime ascendancy has been broken. Now Constance sees eliminating Rachel as the key to consolidating her own power. Rachel has no desire to be enthralled or killed–and she’s terrified of what may become of the city if Constance forces a return to the ancient ways. But even a witch-born demon can’t stand against the old undead–at least, not alone. And if Rachel refuses to claim the role of Cincinnati’s master demon, the city will tear itself apart, taking her and all those who stand beside her with it. -Goodreads

The Review:

Rachel Morgan is every bit as enjoyable now as she was 10 years ago. Only now there’s an element of nostalgia that makes any new Hollows book that much more special. The quality has not diminished one iota and the plot is, if anything, only getting more interesting.

There are a few UF series on the market that might be continuing well past their prime (ahem), but Harrison’s work is definitely not among them. I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about this author is how well she slows down the happenings in the story to really focus on nuances of character and internal development. There’s plenty of action to spice it up, but for the most part she allows you to feel truly connected to the characters and involved in the scenes. Her writing is quite differentiated from the rest of urban fantasy, having more of that high fantasy quality and writing style (she also writes fantasy under the name “Dawn Cook.” I love her Truth series). She carried a lot of that slow burn development over to this series, making it one of the strongest in the genre. While it’s not quite my all-time favorite, she immerses you so well into the story that it’s responsible for my single favorite moments in an UF work (Black Magic Sanction wrecked me).

I love how the demon’s story progressed in this book. There are a lot of things building and developing that I’m betting are going to have a great payoff later. I also appreciated the nice balance of old beloved characters and new additions to keep it spicy. One thing I liked in particular is how Harrison used situations and other characters to solidify what a likable character Rachel is. It’s a cool writing technique that really captured my interest the whole way through. And at this point in the series Rachel is still experiencing growth, which is awesome. The only thing that might have made it better is a more momentous ending. But other than that, it satisfied on every account and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

Recommendations: I consider the Hollows a staple in the urban fantasy genre. It’s a slow-burn, character-focused series with gradually snowballing plots that eventually knock your socks off. Even after ending the series at book 13 then revamping (pun), it hasn’t lost any of the amazing quality. If you like any of my recs below but haven’t given this a try, you’re in for a treat!

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Kim Harrison, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Million Dollar Demon. :D

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By Niki Hawkes