Burden of Proof, by John G. Hemry (Ace, 2004)

It has been over a year since Paul Sinclair, legal officer for the Space Navy’s USS Michaelson, testified in the court-martial of his first commanding officer. Since then, he’s settled down to a life in space, serving to the best of his abilities and faithfully, if sometimes reluctantly, acting in his legal capacities. With a new promotion to Lieutenant, and an ongoing relationship with fellow officer Jen Shen (currently serving on another ship), everything seems to be going smoothly.

Then, things go horribly wrong. While the Michaelson is in port at Franklin Station, an explosion rips through part of the ship, destroying part of Forward Engineering and killing a good man in the process. The resulting investigation, conducted by Jen Shen’s father, Captain Kay Shen, leaves all of the blame upon the deceased sailor, case closed. But something’s not right. Alerted by something one of his subordinates says, Paul does some digging into the incident, soon discovering that one of the Michaelson’s newest crew members, a popular young officer, may be to blame, and evidence supporting that line of thought has been tampered with. At this officer’s court-martial, all of the secrets and lies will be stripped away, and the truth revealed. But what impact will this trial have upon Paul’s career, or his relationship with Jen?

Burden of Proof is another exciting military legal SF adventure from John Hemry, who has fast made a name for himself as a writer to watch. Perfectly capturing the rapid-fire give and take and dramatic arguments of shows like Law and Order, or JAG (of course), or movies like A Few Good Men, and throwing in the solid characterization of classic Robert A. Heinlein, the story moves at a fast pace; though the build-up takes place over several months, the court-martial itself is almost surprisingly quick. Once I started reading, I was hard-pressed to put the book down, and I’m left eagerly awaiting the next installment of Paul Sinclair’s career. Though I do admit to wondering what sort of trouble he’ll have to deal with next time, and how long he can continue to be the reluctant lawyer, when he’s clearly just right for the job. Burden of Proof, like each of Hemry’s books to date, is a must for any military SF fan.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

The Battle For Azeroth, edited by Bill Fawcett (BenBella, 2006)

My name is Michael, and I am a World of Warcraft addict. I started playing the game in early 2005, a few months after it was officially released to the public. My main characters include a level 70 restoration-specced night elf druid, and a level 70 holy/retribution-specced human paladin. I’ve played every class and every race, at least for a little while, and my (real life) wife plays the cutest, sweetest, most destructive gnome mage I’ve ever met.

And if you have no idea what I just said, then you haven’t been around World of Warcraft (to henceforth be known as WoW) much, if at all. Which means you may not fully appreciate this book. The Battle For Azeroth: Adventure, Alliance, and Addiction, is part of BenBella’s ongoing SmartPop line, and is a collection of essays looking at different facets and elements of one of the world’s largest, most popular online role-playing games. Being the Warcraft fan that I am, I thought this would be a fascinating, and entertaining book to read. That it has taken me so long to collect my thoughts on the matter can only be blamed on WoW itself. So let’s see what it has to offer, shall we?

Scott Cuthbertson’s introductory essay, “Elegant Game Design: Fishing For Those Missing Hours” is brief, and not entirely focused. He doesn’t seem to entirely know what he’s really trying to say, except to praise the creators of WoW, Blizzard Entertainment, for taking as long as is needed to put out quality games, rather than rush perfection. It’s not the strongest offering in the book, and a weak start.

James Bell’s “Underworld of Warcraft” is an engaging look at what goes on beneath the surface of game play, including sex, politics, religion, and every WoW player’s bane: the so-called Chinese gold farmers. Not always Chinese, the gold farmers are those people who play day and night (or who use automated bots and scripts) to make in-game money (gold) which can then be sold to other players for real life money (something strictly forbidden by Blizzard’s terms of play.) From Christian-themed guilds to fan made films to people making actual money from playing the game, there’s a lot more going on than many casual players would ever realize.

Justina Robson’s “Warcraft: Timesink of the Gods” is a long and somewhat rambling essay that looks at the many little things that make up the whole of WoW, from in-game professions such as fishing and cooking, to in-game jokes (WoW slips in hundreds of pop-culture references) to immediate gratification (ask any player how quick those first few levels accumulate) to Warcraft as a form of personal therapy. It’s a good essay, interesting and conversational, but at the same time, a little dry, trying to make a few too many points.

Nancy Berman’s “LFG… And a Little More” is actually rather intriguing, dealing as it does with the nature of people to interact, flirt, and even develop romantic attachments in game. (I’ve never developed a relationship in WoW… my wife, the gnome mage of doom, would send a fireball up my rear if she caught me making time with some night elf hussy…) The downside of her essay is that it doesn’t focus just on WoW, it draws in information and experiences from a number of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as Everquest, Ultima Online, or World of Warcraft). I think it loses something with its lack of focus solely upon the experience as found in Warcraft, given the supposed nature of this book. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating topic, as it’s all too natural, or tempting, for people to fall for the pixels on their screen.

In “Reframed Relationships: MMORPGs and Societies,” Mel White offers up a scholarly look, from an anthropologist’s viewpoint, at how games like Warcraft have created a whole new level of community and society, and how we naturally break down into social groups within that community. From the gathering of friends and like-minded individuals into guilds, to the player-harassing ‘griefers’ to the casually cross-gendered characters (it’s so easy for men to play female characters, and women to play male, after all), to those who can act differently than they would in real life, they all come together to create what White calls a cyber-reality. Clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and someone could take the study a whole lot further (and likely already has).

Jerry Jackson’s “The Economy of World of Warcraft” is another essay where the topic is more interesting than the title would suggest. The in-game economy is a major part of Warcraft’s appeal for some people, and whether it’s making gold to buy that special piece of equipment you’ve always wanted, or playing the Auction House (you can sell almost anything you find, to someone, for one reason or another) or just comparing the relative values of objects (so-called epics, no matter how bad they might be in comparison to more common items, draw a hefty price just for their rarity), there’s always a deal to be made. Some people come to Warcraft just for that purpose, finding as much challenge in cornering the market on a profession as others do in slaying a dragon.

“Ancestors and Competitors,” by Chris McCubbin, is a delightfully in-depth article which looks at the evolution of gaming, starting with the tabletop ancestor, Dungeons and Dragons, before moving online with the first text-based MUDs, and then into the graphical-based games such as Warhammer, Everquest, and Ultima Online, showing us just what steps were taken before a game such as World of Warcraft could exist. Frankly, this essay, with its attention to details and its back to basics attitude, should have been the lead for all of the rest, as it really does a good job of laying the framework for everything else.

I must confess, I don’t know why James M. Ward’s “Maps and Mapping” is in this collection. While it’s a nice, short essay about maps in RPGs, it has little relevance to World of Warcraft, where the map automatically fills itself in for you as you discover new areas. He barely even mentions WoW after the first paragraph, making this an odd inclusion for the book’s focus.

Then you have Maressa Hecht Orzack and Deborah S. Orzack, whose “Should We Sell World of Warcraft by Prescription Only?” which looks at the extreme darker side of a game like this. They call attention to the true addicts, the people who sacrifice their real lives for pixilated success, throwing away school, friends, careers, and money, and even their own lives. It’s part cautionary tale, part call to arms, and part alarmist, as they sample a few worst-case scenarios. Admittedly, the people who kill themselves over a game, or who flunk out of school because of their obsession, are in the tiny minority, but they are a very real threat. It’s an interesting, well-written essay that seems to revel in addressing these nightmare cases.

“Altaholics Not So Anonymous,” by Doranna Durgin and Nancy Durgin, is an amusing, giggle-worthy look at the tendency of many players to have multiple characters for a variety of reasons. Reading this article, I can see the truth in it, as I’ve made a few alts in my time, for many of the stated reasons. Boredom, variety, the desire to try new classes or races, the desire to cover multiple professions, and the need for a banker character to help store and process all the stuff the others pick up, it all factors in. Their use of humor in the essay was a nice touch, and a change of pace from the dry, scholarly tone of some of the other offerings.

Nancy Berman’s “I Play Like A Girl” is an intriguing, sweeping look at the role of women in MMORPGs, studying why they play, what they play, and how they play. It’s definitely an interesting topic, and Berman tackles it well.

Jody Lynn Nye closes out the essay section with “Advice to the WoWLorn.” In it, she gives advice for those people who’ve lost their partners to the lure of the game, giving them helpful tips and tactics for regaining their attention and bringing them back to the real world. Her advice is both humorous and practical, and this essay is the one that should be photocopied and sent to anyone who knows a Warcraft player. Just in case.

The rest of the book is taken up by Chris McCubbin’s series of articles looking at each of Warcraft’s nine character classes. Each one talks about the role of the class in the game, before delving into historical, mythical, or literary antecedents and inspirations for the class, and finally wrapping up with a suggestion of how to play the class in Warcraft. These are well-written, thoroughly-researched, presented in an accessible style, and well worth reading. If anything, they may the best part of the book, offering as they do some insight into why these particular classes work so well as character archetypes, and why they fit together.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Battle For Azeroth. It has some weak moments, and a couple of the essays didn’t feel suited for the topic, being only loosely connected, if at all, to World of Warcraft themes, and some are less insightful than others, but as a whole, it’s a useful and entertaining volume that Warcraft fans might just enjoy. Of course, in some regards it’s already out of date, since Warcraft has since seen its first major expansion, with the addition of two new races, a new profession, and more areas to explore, as well as various in-game tweaks and patches, but it’s still fairly relevant. I’d recommend it to my fellow players, if just for the curiosity factor and entertainment value.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an alt to level…

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Hybrids, by Robert Sawyer (Tor, 2003)

Robert Sawyer concludes his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy with this book. Contact between a world where humans were the dominant evolutionary path, and a world where Neanderthals survived instead continues to heat up, as the two worlds share aspects of science, culture, history, and more. Ponter Boddit, the first Neanderthal to cross over to our world, continues his growing love affair with human geneticist Mary Vaughan, and the two begin to plan ways to be together permanently, and ways to signify their union with a child of both races. Meanwhile, a shadowy faction sees the world of the Neanderthals as a valuable resource, virgin territory that could be used for so much… if only there weren’t those pesky inhabitants already there. Another group of researchers seeks to answer the ultimate question concerning the nature of religion and the existence of God. Finally, one man’s search for revenge and redemption could save, or destroy, both worlds. All of these stories intertwine as the story moves to a fateful climax.

Let’s face it. While there is an underlying plot to the trilogy, The Neanderthal Parallax is clearly Sawyer’s way of exploring a whole host of questions, and postulating the “what ifs?” of history, society, and technology. His fondness for the imagined world of the Neanderthals is evident in the near-Utopian society he’s devised, though even that society proves to have some dark clouds to it in the name of the greater good. Thought-provoking and intricately-suggested, the alternate world is almost wistful in its portrayal, especially compared to our own messed-up one. Sawyer uses the alien presence of Ponter to explore a number of issues, including religion and morality, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Hybrids. Sawyer rarely disappoints, and this is certainly no exception.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

Star Wars: New Jedi Order: The Unifying Force, by James Luceno (Del Rey, 2004)

After five long, bloody years, the war for an entire galaxy finally draws to a close. The invading forces of the Yuuzhan Vong have penetrated to the very heart of the New Republic, taking Coruscant, killing trillions of beings and destroying entire worlds along the way. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and their varied allies are scattered to the wind as they desperately try to find a solution that doesn’t involve genocide. But time is running short, for one faction of the Republic has released a deadly disease that will wipe out the Yuuzhan Vong and all their creations… a disease which could very well threaten other races as well. All of the secrets seem to lie with the sentient planet, Zonama Sekot, which appears to hold the truth of the Yuuzhan Vong’s origins, as well as the key to their defeat. But it’s a planet under attack, unwilling to risk itself.

This is the end of the bestselling New Jedi Order series, which started off its 20 book run by killing off fan-favorite Chewbacca and only intensifying from there. Author James Luceno brings all of the threads back together at long last, reuniting Luke, Leia, Han, Jaina, Jacen, R2-D2, C3PO, and more, and paving the way for a new era of Star Wars fiction. I’m not sure what’s scarier: that the series got away with killing off several major characters and devastating whole planets, or that it did so and was still, at its worst, infinitely more entertaining than Attack of the Clones. Normally, I shy away from reviewing media-based fiction; it generally relies upon a knowledge of the property it draws from, and has an intricate continuity all its own. However, I’m making an exception for this one simply because it does wrap up the series, and does so with quality and consistency. Whenever I’m dissatisfied with the way George Lucas has taken the movies, I go back to the books for something far closer to the spirit of the story. I can’t recommend this book unless you’re already familiar with the New Jedi Order. However, if you’ve read this far, it’s a wholly satisfying conclusion and you’ll be well rewarded for your loyalty and persistence.

Originally Posted on SF Site, 2004

Elsewhere and NeverNever, by Will Shetterly (Harcourt Magic Carpet, 2004)

Somewhere beyond the World, past the ever-changing expanse of the Nevernever, there’s a city that used to be part of the real world, now just known as Bordertown. It’s a place where humans and the Fae live and interact between their respective worlds, where magic is real and sometimes works as planned, where music plays an important part and anything can happen. It’s a place where the disaffected youths of two worlds go when they’re searching for something they can’t find anywhere else. Into this world comes Ron, a young man trying to escape his mundane past and follow in his missing brother’s footsteps. And for Ron, it’s the start of a long, strange journey. In Elsewhere, we follow Ron’s progress from new arrival, to member of the mixed gang called the Strange Pupae, to dream-addled Wharf Rat, to magically-cursed teen werewolf. Friends come and go as he learns about life on the Border the hard way, but ultimately, he comes through stronger for it all. In NeverNever, he’s still a werewolf, though he has learned to cope. In fact, as Wolfboy, he has managed to gain a distinctive reputation, and he couldn’t be happier. Well, life’s not all roses. It’s hard to find a girlfriend who’s willing to stay with a werewolf (though plenty will try anything once, for the novelty value). Then there’s the murder mystery at the local club, Danceland, which leads into the kidnapping of an old friend, which ties into the years-old riddle of the Lost Heir of Faerie…. And just when things seem to quiet down, a chance meeting with a old enemy proves to be a pivotal moment for Wolfboy, who has a chance to be human again at long last.

Originally published over a decade ago as part of the brilliant Bordertown shared universe edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold, Elsewhere and NeverNever tell the fascinating story of a young man searching for his true identity, no matter how many mistakes and hard choices he has to make along the way. Combining magic, music, murder, mystery, and urban fantasy at its best, these books are a welcome reissue. Be sure to also check out Finder, by Emma Bull, as it features the same setting and some of the same characters.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

No Phule Like An Old Phule, by Robert Asprin and Peter J. Heck (Ace, 2004)

Captain Willard “Jester” Phule of the Space Legion, and his irrepressible team of misfits, Omega Company are back for their fifth action-packed outing in No Phule Like An Old Phule. Ever since Phule took over the leadership of Omega Company, generally regarded as the dumping grounds for the Space Legion’s worst and most incorrigible soldiers, he has turned it into an elite unit through an infusion of money and business sense, and good old-fashioned dumb luck. But there’s always someone willing to rain on the parade. Not only have a pair of unsavory gamblers set their sights upon Omega Company’s casino (the story of which can be found in Phule’s Paradise), but Phule’s father has come to pay his son a visit, to prove that no one in their family should sink so low as to own a casino. When the team manning the Fat Chance Casino raises the stakes on one very special set of slot machines, a one-in-a-billion chance could spell disaster. But that’s not all. Omega Company is under investigation for potential environmental violations on the planet of Zenobia, their current station. Throw in a quest for the spirit of Elvis, a genetically-enhanced dog, a group of unwanted big-game hunters, and a lot of chaos, and you have a typical day for Captain Jester and his men.

As always, the Phule series features Robert Asprin’s trademark dry humor, whimsical attention to detail, and outlandish circumstances, with Peter J. Heck pitching in to liven up the plot. Comic science fiction is a rare thing, and the Phule series is always good for some chuckles, if not outright laughter. I’ll confess that I’m not as enamored of “newer” characters in the series as I am the ones who got much more screen time in the original Phule’s Company. Frankly, a preacher who spreads the gospel as according to Elvis only gets so much mileage with me. Some of the humor (especially in acronyms — an environmental agency with the initials AEIOU?) is a little forced, and I still never really get a sense of any danger from whatever bad guys have been produced to give Our Heroes a hard time. However, this doesn’t stop me from reading each new book in the series, and enjoying the story anyway.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

Balance of Trade, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (Ace, 2006)

(This review is of the Meisha Merlin edition)

The latest offering from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, though set quite firmly in the Liaden setting, is actually a standalone, the first Liaden novel to date not to feature the influential and far-roving members of Clan Korval. Instead, we’re introduced to Terran would-be trader Jethri Gobelyn, whose family owns a number of trading ships, including the Gobelyn’s Market. His relationship with his family isn’t as secure as it could be; ever since the death of his father, his mother and Captain of the Gobelyn’s Market has become increasingly distant. When Jethri discovers he’s been apprenticed to another ship, he resists the initial idea of leaving the only home he’s ever known. However, an investment gone sour opens up new doors of opportunity, and before he fully understands the consequences, he’s joined the crew of the Liaden ship Elthoria under the supervision of Master Trader Norn van’Deelin, who sees in Jethri a way to bridge the differences between Liadens and Terrans. Now Jethri is continually tested, circumstances dictating he learn a whole host of new customs as he interacts with a people who place an inordinate amount of importance upon honor, reputations, dignity, and propriety. Where one wrong move, or even an improper bow can affect the directions of entire clans, he can’t afford a single misstep. But if he watches his step, he could make a fortune. If only he can overcome the prejudice many Liadens feel towards Terrans, and unravel the mystery left in the wake of his father’s death years ago.

I love the Liaden books. While Balance of Trade isn’t my favorite (that honor still goes to Scout’s Progress), there’s no denying that Jethri Gobelyn is a most likeable character, the sort you can’t help but want to succeed. It could almost be argued that he’s too perfect, given his natural ability to interact on a socially acceptable level with even the most narrow-minded of Liadens, but luckily, his flaws come out when he’s forced to embrace radical change in his life. I also love the Liadens themselves; their concept of melant’i, a code of honor and conduct which dictates their standing in social, professional, and emotional interactions, remains one of my favorite aspects of the Liaden Universe.

Frankly, the only thing I find missing in Balance of Trade is the underlying (or more overt) romance which has characterized the other Liaden stories, something I consider to be one of Lee and Miller’s strengths. I hope we’ll get to see more of Jethri Gobelyn, as his story is far from over. Balance of Trade is a low-key space opera that relies heavily on characterization, multi-layered plotting, and social conflicts, rather than on violence and blasters. It’s actually a perfect introduction to the Liaden Universe, and I recommend it to longtime fans and newcomers alike.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

Howling Moon, by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp (Tor, 2007)

Once a top agent of Wolven, the organization dedicated to internally policing the hidden society of shapeshifters known as the Sazi, Raphael Rameriz has lived in quiet obscurity ever since a deadly political scandal forced him into retirement. He thought he was out for good. He was wrong.

Called back into action by the most powerful being in the Sazi, Raphael is tasked with the protection of Cat Turner, a recently-orphaned heiress who was the sole survivor of a brutal assault. The problem? Cat’s become a werejaguar of unknown potential, and if she can’t get ahold of herself, she’ll be put down. The Sazi take absolutely no risks in protecting their secrecy in a world that would likely destroy them if it knew the truth. So now Raphael and Cat — werewolf and werecat — are the unlikeliest of allies as Raphael teaches Cat what it means to be Sazi. And though their allies are many, their enemies are even more so, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell one from the other. For the werewolves of Boulder don’t want a werejaguar around, especially one that’s becoming so very close to their temporary Alpha. Pack politics may be the death of Raphael and Cat long before the Sazi’s most infamous serial killer comes back to finish the job he started years ago.

And, of course, even as Raphael and Cat explore the inexplicable attraction that bonds them, opponents from all sides make themselves known. Rivals for the leadership of the pack. Rivals for Raphael’s affections. Rivals for Cat’s affection. Traitors who will do anything to get rid of the two. Snakes in the grass — political, metaphorical, and literal — abound as things come to a head, forcing a resolution that could affect the Sazi forever.

Howling Moon is the fourth in The Sazi Series by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, but like the rest of the series, it’s intended to stand on its own merits. Indeed, it was originally intended to serve as the introduction to the series, before being placed further back in the rotation, while readers were more gradually introduced into the world of the Sazi in Hunter’s Moon, Moon’s Web, and Captive Moon. Given how dense this book feels, how thickly-plotted, and how immersed in Sazi and pack politics it seems, this may be a good thing. The first book of the series only brought in the true nature of the Sazi world near the end, and we’ve been gradually given more to work with in each book since. Although Howling Moon is indeed a stand-alone, it links quite nicely to the others in the form of shared characters, a few overlapping plot threads, and some answered questions.

But is it good? Oh yeah. The Sazi Series is one of the shining lights of the Tor line of paranormal romances, and a new Adams and Clamp always gets my attention. The characters are richly-realized, and there’s some definite chemistry between Cat and Raphael. And as for the inevitable moment when their mutual passion finally takes hold? In a word, sizzling. But beyond that, these are likeable characters, and the interplay between wolf and jaguar is just plain fun, especially when their differences are played up in terms of hunting style, or natural opposition. It’s not just about those two characters, though. There are quite a few secondary characters running through this book, and sometimes you need a scorecard to keep track of their complex motivations and loyalties. (In all honesty, I occasionally had to flip back to refresh my memory as to who was whom, as a lot of names get thrown at the reader, and it’s easy to miss something if you don’t pat attention.) There are a few characters I’d definitely like to see again, including Raphael’s adult son Raven (a werewolf) and Raven’s partner Emma (a wereowl, how cool is that?)

On the surface, the Sazi might seem to be just another hidden society of supernatural beings, dwelling in secret alongside humanity, a concept which has become somewhat overdone in recent years. But there’s just something about them, in the context of the story, that makes them more interesting, better executed than most of their ilk. They’re organized, but not living in perfect harmony. They’re secretive, but not up to any grand mischief or manipulation. They live a long time, but they’re not the immortal masters of the world. They’re not all cookie-cutter, either, as they act both like normal people, and like the animals they can become. Take it from me, the Sazi are interesting.

I greatly enjoyed Howling Moon. Adams and Clamp just keep getting better and better with each subsequent book in the series, and they’ve made it easy for a new reader to jump in at any point. Whether you like urban fantasy, or paranormal romance, this is a series worth picking up.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Dates From Hell, by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Kelley Armstrong and Lori Handeland (Avon, 2006)

It seems like everyone’s got a war story inspired by their days serving in the front lines of the hell called dating. Now, four authors well-known for their explorations of the crossroads of supernatural and romance turn their attentions to those war stories. In four very distinct stories, they explore just how bad, or weird, it can be when your date isn’t even human….

Dates From Hell is a collection of four novellas. While I’m not always the most eager to dive into the paranormal romance genre (for every really good offering, such as Cathy Adams and C.T. Clamp’s Hunter’s Moon, or Laura Anne Gilman’s Staying Dead, there seem to be half a dozen of the more generic girl-meets-vampire-or-werewolf books), I was immediately attracted to this one by the presence of Kim Harrison, whose Rachel Morgan books (such as Dead Witch Walking) have fast become some of my favorite urban fantasies. I came for the Kim Harrison, and I stayed to read the rest, none of whom I was more than passingly familiar with.

The first story is Kim Harrison’s own “Undead in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Serving as a prequel to Dead Witch Walking, it stars living vampire Ivy Tamwood when she was still working the homicide division of Inderland Security, before she got a transfer and met Rachel Morgan. (For those not up on the series: Inderland Security equals FBI, only for supernaturals, which are mostly out in the public.) As Ivy investigates a string of nasty murders, she finds herself torn between the dangerous attractions of two very different vampires. One, Kisten, is just a friend of sorts. The other, Art, is her superior at work. If Ivy remains true to herself and her morals, she risks defying Art, who holds the power of life, death, and promotion above her. If she gives in… well, Ivy Tamwood doesn’t like to surrender to anyone. But will these distractions ruin her chance at finding a killer? One thing’s for certain: her career will never be the same again.

It was interesting to see things from Ivy’s point of view for the first time in the series. Until now, we’ve only gotten input from Rachel’s perspective, and where vampires are concerned, Rachel tends to be somewhat biased, and not unfairly so. Finally getting Ivy’s side of things helps us to understand the character, and where she was coming from when she first entered Rachel’s life later on. It’s also great getting to see more of Kisten, whose bad boy attitude has kept things interesting in his appearances throughout the series. And given how the story ends, one can certainly predict long-reaching consequences, sure to resurface sooner or later in the books. This story is unusual in this particular quartet, given that it quite obviously fits into a larger setting, and serves to flesh out the characters of a particular series. It’s also a bit darker, more intense, and less of a “date” than its companions. But for all that, it’s still my favorite of the four.

“The Claire Switch Project” is Lynsay Sands’ offering. After a beautiful-yet-brilliant scientist, Claire Beckett, is exposed to an experimental molecular destabilizer, she discovers a new ability to shapeshift. Now, she can become anyone or anything she can imagine, so long as she has a proper frame of reference. This proves convenient, since it’s time for her high school reunion, and her best friend Jill is without a date. That’s how Claire gets conned into attending the reunion. Twice. The first time as herself, with Jill’s brother Kyle (who doesn’t know about her new power.) The second, as famous movie star Brad Cruise, escorting Jill. And thus begins a classic sitcom style comedy of chaotic proportions. I mean it. This is old-school Shakespearean transgender multiple-identity slapstick, right down to the bathroom quick changes, the flimsy excuses, the getting stuck in the wrong place with the wrong person, and so on. In the end, will Claire find true love? Or will she be stuck as a half-man, half-woman mess? You be the judge.

Amusing, yet somewhat shallow, “The Claire Switch Project” certainly suffices as a romantic comedy, but the sad truth is that the plot is overly familiar and fairly predictable, much like its thematic predecessors. It’s a solid work by Sands, but her full-length novels are much better.

Kelley Armstrong gives us “Chaotic,” featuring a half-demon reporter who works for a tabloid newspaper as a cover for her true work as a secret agent for an interracial council, doing her part to keep the supernatural creatures of the world out of the public eye. One night, while at a disastrous dinner party, she stumbles across a werewolf jewel thief, and her world is turned upside-down. Now she’s on the run, with a man she can’t trust, while the one she used to work for has turned against her unexpectedly. Conflicting loyalties and deadly agendas will make this a night she’ll never forget.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read Armstrong’s Women of the Underworld series, to which this story seems related. However, based on the strength of this offering, and the talent I see here, I’ll likely try those books soon. This is a good, fast-paced adventure that definitely lives up to its potential. It provides an ending, but leaves things open enough to revisit these characters later on, thus avoiding the “happily ever after” trap which the previous story fell into. I thoroughly enjoyed “Chaotic.”

Finally, Lori Handeland serves up “Dead Man Dating.” Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to start dating again. Take Kit Morelli, for instance. Her first date in months, and just as she finds herself inexplicably getting hot and heavy with her companion in an alleyway, along comes a random guy who shoots him in the head. When Kit opens her eyes, her date has vanished. Then she ends up kidnapped back to her own apartment by the scary random guy, a man called Chavez. It seems he’s a demon hunter, and Kit’s date was some sort of demon… and it all goes downhill from there. Now Kit’s caught between the dangerously sexy, yet unpredictable demon hunter on one side, and a demon absolutely determined to possess her on the other. And all because she’s the rarest of Manhattan commodities: a virgin. How can she get out of this mess? Well, a few things do come to mind…

“Dead Man Dating” is a lot of fun, though it skews much more into the romance side of the paranormal romance equation, with the heroes quite obviously heading towards a certain ending point. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the main characters have chemistry together, and the plot is fairly solid under the circumstances. I’m strongly tempted to check out more of Handeland’s work to see if she’s stronger in a novel format. I certainly wouldn’t be adverse to seeing these characters again.

All in all, Dates From Hell is a good collection with plenty to offer. The strong points clearly outweigh the weak ones, and it’ll appeal to urban fantasy fans as well as paranormal romance fans. I consider the Harrison story worth the price of admission alone, but for those who demand more for their money, this collection does deliver.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

Ascendancy of Blood, by Eugie Foster (Scrybe Press, 2004)

As a howling mob closes in upon a cursed castle, its vampiric queen unleashes an unholy power to protect her people and herself from utter destruction. In seconds, the castle is overtaken by living vines and giant black roses, as the queen herself sinks into an enchanted sleep, a spindle through her heart. There she will lay, until rescued from the consequences of her dark pact.

Hundreds of years later, a prince desperate to prove himself to his people journeys to Castle Thorn. There, he will conquer the enchanted keep, or die trying like those who have come before him. He will fight through the living vines and giant flowers, and partake of their essence, and he will find the sleeping beauty who once ruled long ago. He will undo her curse, and they’ll live happily ever after. Or will they? Or will the differences wrought over centuries stand in the way of their newfound love?

Combining elements of Sleeping Beauty and vampire tales, Ascendancy of Blood is a quick, sharply-told, gorgeously-described chapbook by up-and-coming author, Eugie Foster. Her strength here lies in the lush prose and seductive imagery that permeates the pages. It’s a very short story, too quickly over to really go into any real detail, though she does do a very nice job of twisting both vampire legends and the familiar fairy tale to create something new and different. I think, however, the time has come to see something much longer from Foster, so she can really put her skills to the test. She’s done nicely with the short stories I’ve seen to date in various publications, but I think she has it in her to turn out a full-length novel. She certainly shows plenty of promise. This chapbook might make a great stocking stuffer for literature-loving friends and family. You can reach the publishers here, and the author here.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2005