Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: Frostflower and Thorn by Phyllis Ann Karr

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I went into FROSTFLOWER AND THORN forewarned, so I feel compelled to forewarn in this review: this fantasy novel depicts rape and torture. I'm normally not a fan of reading novels that feature rape because it's often used to bring angst to the people around the survivor without focusing on the consequences to the survivor him/herself. There are also authors who use rape as a way to create a gritty atmosphere for their world in much the same way that one might hang up cheap paper streamers at a party to create a festive air, and with much less thought. However, this book neatly avoided both pitfalls and handled the subject with sensitivity. Oh, and it was awesome, on top of that.
The story takes place in a world where only women are warriors. This sounds like a very feminist concept, but actually, women are warriors because the religion in this world teaches that men are too valuable to risk themselves. I found the idea interesting, because it justifies women dominating the battlefield without hand-waving at the logic that women are generally physically weaker than men. Plus, to me, it is not that different from our own world-- it’s only that the manner in which men are put forth as being of greater worth manifests differently.
An older version of the cover.
In any case, it is against this background that we meet Thorn, a badass warrior with a sharp tongue and a strong sword arm. Thorn is dealing with the consequences of being a woman who enjoys sex and isn’t afraid to indulge, but lives in a medieval society sans reliable birth control: she is in the early stages of an unwanted pregnancy and looking to get rid of it. By chance, she crosses paths with a sorceron named Frostflower. Frostflower offers to use magic to help Thorn get rid of her offspring, and all she asks in payment is the child, himself. Thorn is a little unnerved by the notion of subjecting herself to sorcery, but Frostflower promises that she can make it happen in the space of an afternoon, and Thorn is desperate. She doesn’t have the coin to pay a physician or an aborter, and as a freelance warrior of sorts, she’s not in a position to keep the child even if she had a motherly bone in her body (which she doesn’t).
In this manner are we introduced to the powers of the sorcereri, Phyllis Ann Karr’s version of magic-users. It turns out that one of their abilities is to “speed time.” By tapping into the life force of a creature or a plant, a sorceron can age it forward. Frostflower uses this ability to hasten Thorn’s pregnancy along and safely deliver the child. Frostflower names him Starwind, and it is obvious from the start that she treasures him. The sorcereri take vows of truth, prudence, and purity. They cannot lie, be reckless, or have sex without losing their powers. Therefore, Frostflower had no other way to have a child of her own if she wished to keep her abilities, and it is clear that she very much wanted to have one.
The trouble is, people in this world are suspicious of sorcereri. If Frostflower is seen carrying the child to her retreat alone, people will assume that she stole him, because they know she cannot have had him the natural way. There are also those who would see the child as an abomination if they discovered that he was sorcered out of the womb, so that part is best kept secret. While she does have the power to snatch lightning bolts from the sky and age people who touch her, for the most part, her powers are no defense. The vows of the sorcereri bind them from doing harm, so Frostflower cannot defend herself directly. Grudgingly, Thorn agrees to accompany her to help deflect suspicion. Over the course of the journey, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom between the pair.
Unfortunately, they run afoul of Maldron, a farmer-priest who rules the territory they are passing through. Frostflower and Thorn manage to escape him, but become outlaws in the process. If Thorn is caught, her guts will be filled with stones and she'll be hung on a gibbet to die. If Frostflower is caught, she’ll be raped to strip her of her powers and possibly gibbeted, as well. The story follows the women’s attempts to win free of Maldron, their developing relationship, and the consequences of each having her faith challenged through her association with the other.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slow reader who tends to languish over the pages to suss out every ounce of meaning and enjoyment. Well, I finished this book in a week. I couldn’t put it down, or at least not for long. I read it with my morning coffee, and on my lunch breaks. Then when I went to bed, I’d switch on a lamp, pick up my ipad, and go back to it.
The prose is solid, and the characters are well-rounded and relatable. I admired tough, blunt, capable Thorn, and gentle, thoughtful, intelligent Frostflower, appreciating both their virtues and their flaws. In particular, I looked forward to Thorn's point-of-view scenes, because there was something so unique and mesmerizing about this rough-spoken, cynical warrior that I loved being in her head. Some of the secondary characters are also unexpectedly intriguing. Spendwell, a soft, cowardly-seeming merchant, initially seems to be nothing more than one of Thorn’s bed partners. As the plot unfolds, he becomes much more, for good and for ill. And Inmara, Maldron’s senior wife, could have presented as a two-dimensional villain, but is ultimately nuanced and complex. She has her own motives and sympathies, and even when her goals run counter to Frostflower’s, it is hard to dislike her.
The pacing was at least partly to blame for while I churned through this book so quickly. I was heavily invested in the characters early on, which made it hard enough to drop in my bookmark and walk away, but every time I tried to put it down, the tension was running too high and I was too concerned to do so. The action was intense, and ultimately built up to a satisfying ending.
If I had to nitpick and find something about this book that I disliked, I suppose it would be that the mystery created by the climax was never resolved in this book. Without an explanation, it felt either like a convenient development or the setup to a sequel. Given that a sequel exists, that seems to answer that question. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a book with awesome world-building, great characters, and a fine balancing of grit and heart, this is the book for you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TV Show Review: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

So I know people were concerned, based on the advertising and the title, that this show was going to be sexist. Well, I randomly decided to watch the first five episodes and thus far, it doesn't trouble me at all. The story revolves around a young, successful woman named Rebecca. She's a Harvard and Yale-educated attorney who is on the verge of being made a junior partner at her law firm. She has everything she could possibly want, but she's stressed out, does nothing but work, and is utterly miserable. She keeps seeing these butter advertisements that ask, "When was the last time you were truly happy?" Well, one day she's walking down the street and she sees Josh.

Josh, you see, was her camp boyfriend when she was 16. He's a sweet, hunky dude with a positive personality and a laid-back attitude. When he sees Rebecca, he tells her he's been living in New York for a few months, but it's just not for him, so he's moving back home to West Covina, California. As an aside, he tells her it's too bad they didn't meet sooner, seeing as she's so hot and successful now. He tells her if she's ever in California, she should give him a call.

Rebecca's eyes glaze over as Josh walks away, and before you know it, she's turning down the partnership and moving to West Covina, California.

From day one, Rebecca is majorly in denial about why she moved to California. After all, West Covina is no paradise. It's portrayed as a shabby suburb four hours from the beach with an overabundance of pawn shops, cash advance stores, and strip clubs. But she insists to everyone that she is here for a fresh start, and West Covina just happened to be the perfect place for her. Yet, all the while, she's still looking for a way to get back together with Josh.

Despite Rebecca's decision to move across the United States to chase some guy she dated over a decade ago, she's actually pretty damn relatable. She's someone who was miserable and looking for a way out, and Josh just happened to suggest one. She has a feverish need for other people's approval, perhaps to make up for the approval she never got from her parents, and much better work skills than personal skills. She's also witty and quirky and prone to make literary allusions and do things like give courtly bows. All these things make her a girl after my own heart. And she's not entirely unaware of how bad her decision-making skills are. The one time she starts to realize that she moved to West Covina for Josh, she almost has a nervous breakdown. Luckily, her paralegal/new BFF, Paula, was there to talk her down from the ledge.

Oh, and did I mention that it's a musical? Yeah, that's the best part. For example, there's the "Sexy Getting Ready Song" in episode 1, which actually shows how unsexy the process of getting ready to go out really is. (Body hair removal, anyone?) 

Then there's the song about her girl crush, Valencia the yoga instructor, in which Rebecca confesses that she wants to grind Valencia's skin into a powder and snort it like cocaine. My personal favorite is "Face Your Fears," a song Paula sings when she's trying to encourage Rebecca to throw a party to get Josh to come over.

In any case, this show surprised me. There were some aspects of the plot I was 100% on board with, but I'm willing to see how they play out and I didn't find them upsetting or offensive. On the whole, though, I enjoyed it immensely and ended up going through the first five episodes in a single night. So if you like musicals, check out an episode and prepare to be surprised, yourself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones

Long before a lovable orphan named Harry suffered at the hands of the Dursleys, a lovable cricket-playing orphan named David Allard was hating life with his awful relations, Uncle Bernard, Aunt Dot, and Cousin Ronald. He tries hard to be grateful for the way they've looked after him since his parents died, but it's tough when all they seem to want to do is criticize him or send him away. When he gets stuck in their company one summer, he glumly anticipates months of misery.

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That is, until he meets Luke. Or, if Luke is to be believed, until he released Luke from a magical snake-filled prison. 

At first, it seems like Luke, charming and fun as he might be, is just plain bonkers. However, David's skepticism is put to the test when he's able to summon his new friend with the flick of a match. Add to that Luke's ability to start fires and wither plants with a touch and maybe he's not so crazy, after all.

But the trouble is, the folks who put Luke in prison aren't pleased by his escape. One by one, they show up to try to trick or force Luke's location out of David, with the most savvy participant in this battle of wills being a one-eyed gent who keeps company with a pair of ravens.

Ultimately, David will bargain with the one-eyed man to try to keep Luke safe, thereby embarking upon a quest that takes him through a bevy of Norse myths come to life.

EIGHT DAYS OF LUKE is a charming tale steeped in mythology, but offering a new and unique perspective on it. Between Diana Wynne Jones' capable prose and the likable main character, the pages flew by for me. Odd as he was, I also loved Luke, and at least one of David's relations turned out to be unexpectedly kind. If I had any quibble with this book, it's that I'd hoped for some clever twist or reveal as the pieces came together, a la HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, but alas, I knew my Norse mythology too well to be surprised by certain aspects of the plot. Still, even without any shocking twists or turns, this book is entertaining and well-written. I had fun trying to guess how each character and location fit into the Norse mythology motif. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it to any mythology buff looking for a fun read that still has some cleverness to it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

I Wrote a Thing, and Now It's in a Book

It's been a long time since I've felt the peculiar mingling of joy and anxiety that comes from seeing my name in print. The first time, a small publisher picked up my two short stories, "A Dark Place Inside" and "Strong Spirits," to feature in a horror anthology. I remember being inordinately proud of these works, despite the latter being the product of a creative writing workshop assignment done around midnight the night before it was due. (I used to think that I worked best under the whip of sheer panic, but honestly, the results have been mixed.) Both stories revolved around blurring the line between the paranormal experiences and mental illness, revealing my profound fascination with the latter. I had to wonder what that said about me.

That was 12 years ago, and I had a lot of things try to distract me from writing since then. Post-graduation malaise, a teaching career, going back to school for my law degree, graduating from law school at that unfortunate moment that the economy went swirling down the crapper, becoming a litigator, leaving litigation behind to work for the state... Busy times, those. But never did I forget how much I'd loved seeing my name in print, and I never stopped yearning to share my stories with the world once more.

Now I've got a creepy, wistful, violent, and hopefully unexpectedly rewarding story published in ALIEN ABDUCTION, a science fiction and fantasy anthology put out by Robot Cowgirl Press. It follows the story of a fairy** who is lured out of her realm and harmed by an unscrupulous magician. Robbed of something vital in the encounter, she sets out to seek revenge. But is revenge all it's cracked up to be? You'll have to read "The Wicked Fairy" to find out. 

I'm very pleased to have my work featured in this collection. I haven't read all of the other stories yet, but from what I have read, I'm in good company. Anyhow, I hope you'll give it a chance, dear readers. I talk so much about writing in my life, on my blog, and all around social media. Now you get to see proof that I've actually done some of it. I'm not all blog, you know. ;)

Peace out, homies.

Buy the Kindle version here.
Buy the paperback version here.

** You might wonder what a fairy's doing running around in an anthology called ALIEN ABDUCTION. The call for submissions encouraged potential contributors to play with the concepts of "alien" beings--be they the usual extraterrestrials, supernatural beings, or something else entirely-- and "abduction." Thus, the content of the anthology is not limited to the traditional science fiction stories of those who are kidnapped and probed. There's actually a pretty healthy mix between science fiction and fantasy, from what I've seen so far.   

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Progress Report on My Reading of FOOL'S QUEST

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            I consider myself to be a slow reader. I have a tendency to linger, to reread the parts I like or the parts that I find rich with information, and I set aside my book periodically to mull over what I’ve read. So when I tell you that I’ve read 374 pages of FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb in a week, believe me when I say that that means something. Because I don’t stop doing things the way I usually do them because I’m fascinated. I’ve still been rereading, going back to revisit the scenes I like, drinking them in like good wine. There was one particular part that I loved so much that I read it three times. And yet, I’m 374 pages deep. If you added in the number of pages I’ve reread, it’s probably something closer to 500. I have been reading this book in a fever, and that fever won’t break until I've finished.
           The other thing I am moved to say at this point is that as much as I’ve always loved this series and urged it upon anyone who would listen to me, I’ve always cautioned people that it’s not for the faint of heart. Fitz is one of those characters who just can’t catch a break, and it’s hard sometimes to watch how things play out for him. Then something happened in this book, and I no longer feel compelled to add the disclaimer. I get the sense that everything Fitz has been through is going to mean something in the end, and that it will all be worthwhile. Somehow, that one moment of euphoria-- well, it didn’t wipe away all the pain that came before it, but it gave the kind of joy that is all the more beautiful because it was earned through such pain. 
           So without any caveats, I say to anyone who stumbles across this blog the same thing that I plan to say to all the fellow fantasy readers I encounter from here on out: read these books. Read them all, and read them more than once. They’re brilliantly written, the characters are rich and complex, and the world-building is amazing. Basically, if you’re not reading about FitzChivalry Farseer and you don’t plan to, then I simply cannot agree with your life choices.
          And yes, this is without even finishing this book, or the last book in this particular trilogy. Trust me. They’re just that good.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dark Sansa Needs a Nightlight

I love Game of Thrones. I really do. It fills a fantasy-shaped hole in my heart (and TV viewing schedule) I scarcely knew existed before it came along. But it's because I love the show that I feel the need to point out what it could do better. So I'm weighing in, and I'm starting with the latest and most controversial move the show has made: the rape of Sansa Stark..

Now, before you start groaning and asking me, "Didn't you know this was a bleak show when you started watching?", let me point out that I don't object to rape being included in the plot. Craster's daughters were raped by their father and by the men of the Night's Watch, and while I did not find that pleasant, I accepted it because it made sense for the story they were trying to tell. But the problem with what happened to Sansa isn't so much that it's upsetting (though it is). The problem is that it's crappy writing.

Just as recently as the end of the last season, the show made a promise to us in the form of Sansa Stark sweeping down a staircase, looking like a Goth empress ready to enter the game and destroy the hearts of her enemies. It was a glorious transformation for the weak, wide-eyed girl from Winterfell who once thought being Joffrey's queen was the realization of all her fondest dreams. Having had those dreams ripped down around her ears via her father's execution and Joffrey's sadistic abuse, we finally saw her emerge from the ashes like an elegant, dark-clad phoenix. She made the decision to lie and protect Littlefinger, who she judged to be her best ally, and apprenticed herself to him to learn how to play the game. She showed agency and cleverness in this, as Littlefinger is one of the game's most astute players, and one uniquely susceptible to Sansa's charms based upon his fondness for her late mother.

When Sansa found out that Littlefinger had arranged for her to marry Ramsey Bolton, she was justifiably freaked out and confused, as was I. Why on earth would she want to marry the son of the man who killed her mother and brother? But when Littlefinger explained that it was a way for her to wreak revenge, I was somewhat mollified. Now, I supposed, we would finally see Dark Sansa in action. There was further support for this notion when Sansa was reminded by an old serving woman in Winterfell that "the North remembers," and that she had supporters. In my head, I began to have glorious visions of a Stark coup as our clever young lady played upon the anger and sympathy of the Stark loyalists to bring down the man who murdered her family. 

Then Ramsey started torturing her emotionally at dinner, trotting out Theon and having him apologize for murdering her brothers before deciding that Theon would walk her down the aisle at her wedding. "Well," I thought, "this is just stoking the fire. It's just going to make her angrier and hungrier for revenge, to be reminded of what she lost and who she lost it to." But I felt a little dubious. I mean, things weren't looking good, and I still didn't see any signs of Sansa's grand plan taking shape. She had to have one, though, right? I mean, otherwise, why wouldn't she have just lit the damn candle that she knew could summon someone to help her? "No," I assured myself, "she's definitely building to something."

Then she married Ramsey and he raped her while Theon watched. And our next episode shows her curled up in the fetal position, under lock and key, forced to piteously implore Theon to light the candle because Ramsey's been raping and hurting her nightly.

And that's when my temper finally snapped. 

Really? I mean, really? You're telling me that after all this Dark Sansa crap, all this apprenticeship to Littlefinger, and all these apparent decisions she's been making to land herself here, she's back to just wilting in a corner while she's abused by a sadist? Given that she's looking to be extricated from her situation via the candle, it's pretty clear that she doesn't have any long game here. Which basically begs the question of why she didn't light the f--king candle in the first place, back when she could move about freely and before she was cruelly deflowered? Why would she go through this when she didn't have to unless she had a plan? But how could she have had any kind of plan if she's just flailing helplessly to try and get the candle lit at this point?

So basically, Dark Sansa wrote a check that this story couldn't cash. Instead of signalling her rise to try her hand at the tricks and manipulations of the game, it was basically just a stopover on her round trip back to being Helpless Victim Sansa. Which I wouldn't have been half as angry about if they hadn't promised me more. 

Ultimately, I need movements in a story to mean something. As my beta reader will tell me, I shouldn't write things into a novel that I don't plan on doing anything with, because it's a good way to build up reader expectations without any payoff AND waste precious space. And in a TV show with a hundred freaking characters, they really don't have the space to waste. So I devoutly hope that in the future, the show plans out narrative arcs for the character that follow a path that offers some form of payoff, instead of doing loop-de-loops in the plot parking lot until people get bored and annoyed and start wandering off. If you promise me a player, then you better let her play the damn game.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Daredevil on Netflix

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           I have resisted getting Netflix for ages, a move that has resulted in many of the people in my life questioning my life choices. However, as an avid comic book fan, I knew Daredevil would be my breaking point. At the very least, I had to at least get the one-month trial when the show was released and see if it lived up to my fangirl expectations.

           Color me stunned. After devouring all 13 episodes in a 48-hour period, it took me a day of rest just to be able to speak about them intelligently. And here I am, still fumbling for words to explain just why this show rocked my world.

           I guess the best way to explain what Daredevil does well is to explain all the pitfalls it neatly avoids. Even the best TV shows I watch of late suffer from at least two big problems: (1) uneven character development and (2) poor pacing. With the first problem, perhaps our main character is developed, but too many of the people around him/her are paper cutouts we’re supposed to care about, but don’t. There might be some thin, cliche attempts to make the antagonist have depth, as well, but they’re often just no good rotten scoundrels in a way that real people seldom are.

         With the second problem, you see shows racing to throw out all their best moves upfront to keep people watching. They rush romances to their ultimate conclusion far too soon and then having to manufacture obstacles to keep them from devolving into uninteresting domestic bliss. The story is also in such a hurry to get somewhere that the writers neglect to build up coherent supporting details or allow for any emotional investment. Or, just as bad, the story plods along, meditating endlessly on things that don’t ultimately seem to matter to the story being told. Some shows seem to alternate between the rush and the plodding, leaving the viewer feeling vaguely seasick. It suggests a lack of focus and planning, and a fuzzy view of their endgame for the season and for the series, altogether.

         On both these fronts, Daredevil owns the competition.

Cast image is found here.

          First of all, Daredevil handles character development like a boss. From Matt Murdock, our blind lawyer turned super-powered vigilante (portrayed by Charlie Cox), to his BFF, Foggy “Foggybear” Nelson (portrayed by Elden Henson), to criminal defendant turned secretary, Karen Page (portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll), everyone who walks across the screen in this show is given enough development to feel like a believable, relatable human being. And it’s not just these characters. Secondary characters like Ben Urich (portrayed by Vondie Curtis-Hall), our world-weary news reporter, and Elena Cardenas (portrayed by Judith Delgado), a beleaguered tenant in danger of being driven from her rent-controlled apartment, also get enough attention to make them interesting and beloved. To top it all off, the cast has amazing chemistry. Every time that Foggy and Karen are involved in hijinks, Matt and Foggy are bantering, or the three of them are coming together in a moment of solidarity, pure television magic happens.

          As for developing the main character into someone worth following, this, too, is a serious home run for Daredevil. One of the things I particularly like about the show is that it does not shrink from showing how difficult the life that Matt Murdock lives would actually be. Often, we see superheroes getting thrown into walls and hopping up, ready to shake it off and get back into the fight. In Daredevil, Matt's heroics are utterly brutal, and often leave him beaten senseless and bleeding. He shows resilience, which is explained partially by his family legacy of Murdock men being able to absorb a beating like nobody's business (his dad being a boxer), but he still takes punishment to do what he does. This makes the fact that he runs out there, still stitched up and bruised from the night before, all the more heroic, but also shows that he's at least slightly unbalanced. He doesn't seem to care much for his personal well-being, so fixated on saving the city that he loves that nothing else matters. There is an obsession here that is both admirable and deeply unhealthy. The way the show depicts his backstory- explaining how he was blinded, his upbringing, and about how he lost his father- it all makes perfect sense. After seeing where he came from, you have to wonder if he could have turned out any other way.

This image was found here.

          But it’s not just the protagonist types who get the star treatment around here. No, our big bad, Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. "the Kingpin" (expertly portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio), also gets his time to shine. And boy, does he shine. A hulking menace with an almost nervous, quiet disposition at times, Fisk has own business, his own friends, and even his own love interest to see to. His world does not revolve around the actions of a single vigilante who is trying to interfere with his operations. More realistically, he often has bigger fish to fry as he busies himself with coordinating the factions of the organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen while envisioning himself as the neighborhood’s ultimate savior. He and his world are complex, and just as deserving as attention as Matt’s. It's only as the show progresses that these two forces begin to circle each other more closely.

          And the plot unfolds just like a flower, one petal at a time, until there is an explosion of goodness all up in your peepers. There is no rush to get people hooked up. Foggy’s obviously digging on Karen. Karen isn’t necessarily on board with that, but seems to be in the throes of a possible schoolgirl crush in Matt's company. Matt, himself, has ridiculous chemistry with Claire (portrayed by Rosario Dawson), the nurse who patches him up after his extracurricular activities leave him worse for the wear. However, the show does not appear to be in a rush for anybody to start picking out china patterns, allowing sparks to grow and fizzle where they naturally may. Meanwhile, who is out there finding true love? Wilson Motherf--ing Fisk, that’s who.

          Additionally, while the action is beautifully done and ever present, this is a show that isn’t afraid to spend most of one episode with two best friends having a terse conversation at a pivotal moment in their relationship. This may sound like boring stuff, watching two guys argue in a room with the occasional flashback, but I was hunched over on my couch, leaned in towards my TV with tears in my eyes, going, “Oh my God. Oh my God, what’s going to happen?” the entire time. The tension played out beautifully, and the subject of the conversation, alone, was enough to keep you riveted.

          In sum? This is basically some of the best TV I've watched in a long time. It’s become one of the shows that I feel I have to preach like the gospel, right up there with Game of Thrones and (sometimes) The Walking Dead. I feel so passionately about the quality of what I've seen so far that I need other people to know, and I feel almost certain that everyone who takes me up on it will come back pleased. So even if you don’t take me up on any of my other recommendations, heed me on this: watch Daredevil. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

Further reading:

Why Marvel's 'Daredevil' Netflix Series has Changed Shared Universe Franchising

The "Daredevil" Binge-Blog

Netflix's Daredevil is Now the Second Most Pirated Show

Daredevil: A Longform Approach to Comic-Book Television

Jeph Loeb Talks "Daredevil," Marvel Studios, Promises "It's All Connected"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Book Review: REAPER by Katrina Monroe

Click here to buy a copy.

I'm pretty particular when it comes to what I read and what I don't. I like a fresh take on things, sure, but I like to tread certain familiar genre paths. I don't think I'm alone in that. People whose preferences tend toward detective novels might not be interested in, say, an old-school bodice-ripper, for instance. Personally, I like epic fantasy, chock full of forgotten kingdoms, magical powers, and strange, deadly beasts. Urban fantasy . . . not so much. I don't rule it out, because I never rule out an entire genre on principle, but it's generally not my cup of tea. I like to let my imagination bask in another world the way a sunbather catches rays, soaking it all in and forgetting the place I left behind. Epic fantasy does that for me. But it feels less like of an escape when the main character is driving a Honda and drinking Starbucks, so I tend to steer clear of urban fantasy. So believe me when I say that when I get hooked on a urban fantasy novel, that really means something.

Enter Katrina Monroe's novel, REAPER, the urban fantasy tale of wannabe writer, Oz, whose untimely death launches his real career as a collector of souls. There is an awkward middling stage-- isn't there always?-- in which he's forced to spend his time in a sort of writer's purgatory, writing ironic deaths. Then a lottery win plunges him into his existence as a reaper, lurking invisibly among the living and learning the ropes of soul-gathering from his grizzled, foul-mouthed mentor, Bard.

If I had to pinpoint what really drew me into this story in a subgenre that usually has me tiptoeing in like a swimmer into cold water, I'd probably identify three big strengths: (1) solid writing, (2) good world-building, and (3) relatable characters. When you've got these three things going for you, it doesn't matter what genre you're writing in. You're gonna suck people in. And Ms. Monroe has got all three.

I'll admit, I stumbled in the beginning of the book, thinking "oh God, oh God, there are going to be cars and blenders and shit in this story." Then the excellent use of language caught my eye and sent it gliding like scissors cruising through a sheet of wrapping paper. Of Oz's mother, we're told that, "Her sighs and groans were like their own language, known only to Oz," and that she "was the kind of woman who'd win a gold metal in the Guilt Olympics." With regard to Oz's father, we learn that "[t]he man saw [his] house as his own private fiefdom, and the vacating neighbors only strengthened his claim on the land." In those few phrases, I got where Oz was coming from, and a little bit of why he turned out the way he did. Later, the click of typewriter keys in an office is described as a "syncopated tapping like the hum of worker bees," something that starts to hit Oz's ear-- and mine-- like music. There's also a paragraph about a calender featuring a tabby kitten "frozen in mid yarn ball" that's fabulous in ways I'll leave you to discover for yourself. But the words, they are good. And I know good words.

The other thing that riveted me about this book was the world-building. I'm a writer, myself, and I know how tricky it is to weave in the details of a magical system or a mythology without having a character just sit around and monologue excessively. However, in seamless little snippets, Ms. Monroe paints a picture of the lonely, surreal world Oz inhabits after his death. And it is a rich, unusual place, from the means that the reapers use to send souls on to the afterlife to the hidden perils that stalk them while they work. The hidden world that Ms. Monroe superimposed upon the familiar was so intriguing that I couldn't bring myself to mind that little aftertaste of reality. There was still a feeling of escape, of new and unusual discoveries the turn of every page. And that satisfied even the most car-phobic, epic fantasy reader parts of my brain.

Then, of course, there's Oz. It's beyond important to have a main character that people either really like or hate in a fascinated sort of way. Oz delivers on the former quite well. I related strongly to his earnest attempts to seek authenticity in his writing, which resulted in the occasional silly experiment. Say, for instance, slamming a car door experimentally to try and hear the sound of finality in it, as he'd written in his novel, and being rewarded with the sound of his car door breaking. Been there. Maybe not exactly there, but I'm somewhere around the corner, absent-mindedly breaking shit while I plot. 

Oz did make some bad decisions across the pages and there are times when I liked him less for them, but there were moments where he won me over strongly enough that I figured we could weather any storm. The first such moment happened when he was walking along with Bard during his initial jaunt into the real world and Bard catches him making ridiculous faces in the reflection of a shop window. He's died, been to purgatory, and come back as a grim reaper, and this is where his natural urges take him. That's my kinda guy.

Ultimately, REAPER is not without its flaws. I don't think I've read any book that doesn't have at least one thing I could pick at, if I was in the mood for picking. But all in all, it was an entertaining read that kept my attention, and it delivered an especially solid ending, which is my personal benchmark for a book worth recommending. After all, there's nothing more disheartening than trekking across the pages with a group of characters and then arriving at the end feeling wildly unfulfilled. In my humble opinion, a good ending can make or break a book, and this one really shines. So I recommend you click the link above and get your hands on a copy today.