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Book Review: Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs [March 10, 2020]

Title: Smoke Bitten

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Mercy Thompson #12

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them. Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived. Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory. It won’t, can’t, remain. Not if I have anything to say about it. -Goodreads

The Review

Smoke Bitten was superb!

The plot was very engaging, involving the mystery of a body-snatching Smoke Creature, who’s identity I actually figured out around the same time as the main character. Go me!! But more importantly, I love it when books can get you involved in solving things out of your own volition. I’m a huge fan of Patricia Briggs. I’ve been following the Mercy Thompson/Alpha & Omega books almost from the start, and the saga is a strong favorite. That said, I was let down by book #11 and said as much in my (somewhat) critical review. That book didn’t have the same spark as the books before it and I started questioning whether the series was being drawn out past it’s prime. My main criticism was that Mercy wasn’t as pivotal a role-player in advancing plot as I thought she should’ve been (instead seemed more focused on the mundane). Soooo not the case here – she was central to all the happenings, and back to being that beautiful instigator of change I’ve loved her for. Smoke Bitten was easily one of the strongest in the series. It had an excellent combination of action, humor, sentiment, and world-building. This is a showcase of Briggs at her finest, and I can’t wait to read what she comes out with next!

The story is full of amazing characters, and the depth we have with each of them at this point is remarkable. This novel was a success for me partially because Briggs managed to take the deep connections between a few of the characters and forge them even closer. The way Mercy related to specific characters in Smoke Bitten was my favorite aspect of the story. As a whole, I love the pack dynamics. I love the relationships with magical beings. And I love the number of players involved that make future books so compelling with their boundless possibilities. Excuse me while I fangirl a minute…

Recommendations: I consider Mercy Thompson a staple of the urban fantasy genre. It’s also one of the easiest to recommend (most of the urban fantasy series I geek out about usually come with disclaimers… this one is just straight-forward awesome). It’s a top 5 (uf) for me. I’d especially recommend it to anyone wanting to get into the genre. I’d strongly suggest reading both the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega books in order of publication. The crossover is incredibly high, and you won’t get the full experience in later Mercy books if you don’t read both.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Part-Time Gods by Rachel Aaron

Part-Time Gods by Rachel Aaron

Title: Part-Time Gods

Author: Rachel Aaron

Series: DFZ #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Life in the magical mess of the Detroit Free Zone is never easy. When you’re laboring under the curse of a certain prideful, overbearing dragon, it can be down right impossible. My name is Opal Yong-ae, and I’m a Cleaner. At least, I used to be. Thanks to the supernatural bad luck that turns everything I do against me, these days I’m more of a walking disaster. Getting rid of this curse is the only way to get my life back. Unfortunately, dragon magic is every bit as sneaky and deadly the monsters behind it, and just as hard to beat. But I’ve never been one to take her doom at face value. Cornered doesn’t mean defeated, and in an awakened city that rules herself, dragons are no longer the biggest powers around. -Goodreads

The Review:

More adventures in the DFZ!! This delightful spinoff series is shaping up to be even more solid than Heartstrikers… I’m loving it.

I binged Part-Time Gods in a single day – its one of those fun, lighthearted books that function as palate-cleansers between heavier fantasy novels. The story revolved around MC Opal going to creative extremes trying to shake off a dragon curse laid on her, which was my favorite element of the book. It added on to the already interesting premise (reminiscent of the show Storage Wars), and gave a much more in-depth exploration the DFZ – a place/entity that has captured my attention since the first Heartstrikers book. And I haven’t even mentioned the dragons and how much I love their haughty, stubborn personalities (the hard-headedness between Opal and her father is a really satisfying contest of wills – I can’t wait to see it played out). All the things, people. This is a killer series.

The only thing holding me back from full praise is the budding love story… I have a few reservations. The characters are adorable and a total perfect fit, but the romantic tension isn’t working well for me. The characters are behaving almost unnaturally to avoid that “getting together” moment and I feel like there’s a lot of extremely forced and unnecessary conflict in play to keep them apart (plus a dose of uncharacteristic stupidity). It’s coming across as more of a writer’s construct to save some of the tension for the next book (which I can appreciate), but there was so much clear chemistry between the characters in this book (also a good thing) that dragging it on felt contrived. Hopefully this means the next book will be on fire.

Recommendations: If you like dragons, fun characters, and books that don’t fit the mold, this is my pick for you. Heartstikers was awesome – containing some of the best “omg!” moments I’ve read in ages, but it lacked a little consistency (I thought books 4 & 5 should’ve been tightened into a single story). This DFZ spin-off is so far much more even, and I’m loving every moment. Rachel Aaron/Bach is among my shortlist of favorite authors for a reason. Give her books a try for some fun!

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Title: Clean Sweep

Authors: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy (kinda)

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina. And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ilona Andrews are my feel-good authors.

It’s pretty much a guarantee at this point that I’m going to enjoy everything they produce. And they’re only getting better with time. Innkeeper happens to be my last unexplored series from them, and I plan to savor it.

Clean Sweep was delightful. One of the funniest I’ve read from them, it’s biggest selling point was how much fun they clearly had with it. The world building is wildly random compared to other books in the genre (low fantasy setting and feel, urban fantasy beings, and a slight science fiction influence) but somehow it worked. There’s a lot of unexplored territory that bodes well for an interesting expansion in future books… I can’t wait. :)

The characters were also 100% Ilona Andrews trademarks, meaning they were strong-willed, capable, cheeky, and a complete pleasure to read. Dina might be one of my favorites because she’s a little more understated and I like the depth of the backstory driving her actions. The male lead fits the carbon copy, but he’s just different enough that I didn’t mind it.

For such a quick read, the book did have a few small pacing issues. Everything was engaging and interesting, but I think there were too many info-drop scenes. It is a slightly more complicated world and setting than usual, but hopefully it will go more smoothly in the next novel. My rating also reflects comparisons to other books they’ve written, some of which have completely knocked my socks off! Clean Sweep was just a solid, entertaining story by comparison.

Recommendations: these authors (it’s a duo writing under one name) are among my favorites for a reason – they always produce fun, creative, and exciting stories. Clean sweep was an excellent start to this ongoing series, and I’d recommend it as a good starter if you haven’t tried an IA yet. I’m going to start calling Ilona Andrews my “instant mood-boosters.” :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Title: Sapphire Flames

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Hidden Legacy #4

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: In a world where magic is the key to power and wealth, Catalina Baylor is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, and the Head of her House. Catalina has always been afraid to use her unique powers, but when her friend’s mother and sister are murdered, Catalina risks her reputation and safety to unravel the mystery. But behind the scenes powerful forces are at work, and one of them is Alessandro Sagredo, the Italian Prime who was once Catalina’s teenage crush. Dangerous and unpredictable, Alessandro’s true motives are unclear, but he’s drawn to Catalina like a moth to a flame. To help her friend, Catalina must test the limits of her extraordinary powers, but doing so may cost her both her House–and her heart. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ll take a hundred more Hidden Legacy books, thank you very much. Sapphire Flames was a ton of fun and easily one of my favorite reads of the year.

My favorite thing about it was the main character, Catalina. I really like her. Unlike most of Andrews’ leading ladies, Catalina isn’t inherently a kickass face-everything-head-on type of person. Stepping up to things takes a lot of courage, and watching her face down those fears and be a total badass anyway was inspiring. Not to mention relatable. Then you add in a sweet schoolgirl infatuation with a handsome boy, and I was sold. Awkward heroines always speak to me more, especially when it’s a subtle awkwardness of behavior and thoughts. I can’t wait to see how she develops in future books.

Don’t be swayed by the overly cheesy book covers for this series. It’s a robust story filled with great character dynamics, good world building, and plots with substance. That’s not to say it takes itself too seriously. It has some elements that risk eye rolls if they were executed any less flawlessly. But these authors always know how to make it work. No matter how silly a plot element seems, I never cringe, I just enjoy the story. They also never cheapen the story and recognize that a slow burn can be really effective, and that’s one of my favorite things about them.

Overall, I’m at the point where a new Ilona Andrews book gets top priority in my TBR. I always know I’m in for a great read, and recently I’ve even given out a few sacred 5 stars to some of them. If their storytelling formula works for you, you’re in for a boatload of fun.

Recommendations: don’t let the covers scare you – these are high-functioning urban fantasies that manage to create depth while still maintaining the fun factor. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t picked up the 3.5 prequel (Diamond Fire), you’ll totally want to do that before diving into this one. For any who haven’t read these authors yet, they’re my favorite urban fantasy writers and I can’t fangirl enough. The only book I haven’t loved from them is the very first Kate Daniels. Keep reading. It’s worth it!

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Living with the Dead by Kelley Armstrong

Living with the Dead by Kelley Armstrong

Title: Living with the Dead

Author: Kelley Armstrong

Series: Women of the Otherworld #9

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: The men and women of the Otherworld – witches, werewolves, demons, vampires – live unseen among us. Only now a reckless killer has torn down the wall, trapping one very human woman in the supernatural crossfire. Robyn moved to LA after her husband died to try to put some distance between herself and the life they had together. And the challenges of her job as the PR consultant to a Paris Hilton wannabe are pretty distracting. But then her celebutante is gunned down in a night club, and Robyn is suddenly the prime suspect. The two people most determined to clear her are her old friend, the half-demon tabloid reporter Hope Adams, and a homicide detective with an uncanny affinity for the dead. Soon Robyn finds herself in the heart of a world she never even knew existed – and which she was safer knowing nothing about . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

Even though the magic of the series has evaporated, Living with the Dead was just entertaining enough to keep me reading to the end. But I now find myself contemplating abandoning the series. No Humans Involved (book #7) was a golden nugget in a series I thought had died, and the main reason I continued to this point, but now I have to weigh the risk of slogging through another novel like this against the possibility of striking gold again. I’ve been working on this series for so long, I just don’t think I have the patience.

Okay, the book wasn’t as horrible as I’m making it out to be. But when compared to other urban fantasies (and early books in this series), it doesn’t really hold a candle. It’s a little better when compared to paranormal romances, but not by much. And there wasn’t even a romance in this one! Which brings me to my next rant…

I craved at least a little romance in this book. After all, it’s one of the main reasons I got hooked on the series in the first place (my friend referred to it once saying “I want more of that hot werewolf sex.” Which I laughed at because I couldn’t disagree). Then to add insult to the lack of steamy scenes, the sexual encounters that did make an appearance were fucking weird. Weird like very uncomfortable and icky, not weird like kinky. It left me feeling like I could’ve been very happy living my life never having read about it. I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, the basic writing was still quality, the characters were good, the storyline was meh, and the romance was nonexistent. Part of me wants to see how everything converges at the end of the series, but at this point it might be a long while before I get there, if I do at all.

Recommendations: if you like urban fantasy, definitely check out the first two books – amazing! The rest of the series to this point has some merit, with a hit or miss ratio at about 50/50. This installment was my least favorite so far. I think I’m at the point where I’M the one who needs the recommendation on whether or not to finish out the series.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

Title: Storm Cursed

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Mercy Thompson #11

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic. And a coyote shapeshifter. And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn’t stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae. The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death. But we are pack, and we have given our word. We will die to keep it. -Goodreads

The Review:

Storm Cursed had a lot of the elements I’ve come to love from the Mercy Thompson series. Pack dynamics (I love it when they don’t get along lol), fun mysteries (in this case involving miniature goat zombies), and a world filled with so many interesting characters it’s hard to find page-time for them all.

Alas, despite having all the same ingredients, Storm Cursed was my least favorite since Frost Burned. I have some thoughts as to why:

The main character, Mercy is where I see my most prominent dissatisfactions here. For one thing, she just doesn’t seem like the same Mercy I fell in love with at the beginning of the series. Her character seems very different these days, at least to my perceptions. And not because of how her profile has evolved (because character growth is essential to any good series), but more from a writing standpoint (i.e. what Briggs chooses to have Mercy’s POV focus on). She’s very concerned with mundane things that don’t add any real character value for me – such as making sure to not use her phone while driving, or taking care to wear gloves while working on an engine. Moments like that are clear moments, and I’m finding them distracting. The sentiments are all good, for sure, but there are other ways to convey a character’s practical nature without sounding like an after school special. I read a really good article by Chuck Wendig about why including the mundane, even to establish character, can work against you, and much of what he warns against was present in this book (I’m referring specifically to his “Not Everything is Interesting” section).

Maybe it’s just me. Most of the readers in my Goodreads group didn’t have any of these same objections. Maybe all these mundane things add to the experience for others and I’m just being too picky. For whatever reason, it’s just didn’t work for me in this book.

The problem compounds even further for me. Mercy used to be a catalyst! An instigator of change who took her destiny into her own hands and made things happen. But in these last two novels, she was kind of a non-factor when it came to the conflict resolution… very reactionary. This issue doubles down in Storm Cursed because many of the conflicts happened off-page (on the periphery of the story, where the characters find out about them after the fact), which only served to increase the distance I felt. Maybe that’s why I had more time to scrutinize the characters – there wasn’t as much active engagement.

Now for some positive talk (because, after all, I still love the series). What definitely didn’t let me down were the side characters and the overall advancement of the series. Between Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega, this world has so much depth! The number of stories and characters Briggs could expand on are boundless. Every side character is interesting. Every backstory compelling. Every supernatural faction is still mostly an enigma. The care paid to its overall construction and development is brilliant, and it’s also why Briggs is one of my favorite authors (not to mention she’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Working as a bookseller, I’ve met countless authors over the years, and she’s still responsible for my favorite interaction to date, by far. If you can catch her at a signing – go!!).

My point is, even though Storm Cursed didn’t quite tickle my fancy like past novels have, I’m still a huge fan of this series and will definitely be reading anything Briggs decides to write next. Which, incidentally, is NOT going to be a random spinoff novel about Christy… apparently Briggs & Co. played an April fools joke where they announced she’d be taking a break from the main characters for a while. Unfortunately I didn’t see the original post, just a summary in a weekly newsletter… meaning I read about it on April 7th and had no reason to suspect it wasn’t legit. So I spread the word… and then facepalmed when I found out it was a joke. But I suppose it’s a testament to this author that I would’ve been totally on board with a Christy novel! I’m not sure how I feel about jokes in general on that scale, but considering that’s how the Hugh books in Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series got started (Iron and Magic was bomb), I won’t complain too much.

Recommendations: while Storm Cursed contained many of the components I’ve come to love from this series, a bit of the magic was missing for me, making it my least favorite in a long while. However, it advances the plot nicely and will give you a few laughs along the way. Definitely don’t pick it up unless you’re up to date with the series. :)

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by Niki Hawkes