Author Archive

BOOK REVIEW: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong and distinctive quartet of stories from a rising star in genre short stories.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan explores the borderlands of fantasy in a quartet of short stories.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Clear, crisp, beautiful writing across all four stories.
CONS: The last story was especially too slight in terms of genre identification.
BOTTOM LINE: Cracklescape offers an excellent window into Australian fantasy short stories.

Twelfth Planet Press is a small press in Australia dedicated to bringing genre short stories to readers. The rules and boundaries of the Twelfth Planet Press series are as formal as a sonnet: 4 original stories, with a total of 40,000 words. Margo Lanagan’s Cracklescape is the newest volume in this series.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff


REVIEW SUMMARY: Kristoff offers an interesting debut novel set in a world reminiscent of an aggressive, expansionistic feudal Japan–with ecologically catastrophic steampunk technology.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the land of Shima, a hunter’s daughter on a quest with her father forms an unlikely bond with a Griffin and sets off a chain reaction of events to threaten the Shogunate.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Original blend of feudal Japan and steampunk. Excellent engagement with themes under-explored in Steampunk.
CONS: Writing needs a fair bit of polish and tightening, character development needs some fine-tuning.
BOTTOM LINE: Japanese Steampunk unafraid to engage with the dark side of the subgenre. The Lotus must bloom!

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BOOK REVIEW: Five Little Zombies and Fred by Jules Sherred

REVIEW SUMMARY: A picture book from Jules Sherred replete with visual Easter eggs references, and yes, zombies.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Canadian youngling Fred tries to escape his own personal part of the zombie apocalypse

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good use of repetition and rhyme; colorful art.
CONS: The Easter eggs are sometimes too difficult to see; the book probably could have stood to have been a bit longer.
BOTTOM LINE: Shoot the zombie in the head, Fred!

Fred is a Canadian child who has come face to face with his personal slice of the zombie apocalypse. Five zombies are after him, and his only lifeline is a Royal Mounted Policeman, a Mountie, with repetitious but practical advice in dealing with the zombies chasing after him. Shoot them in the head! But will Fred survive?
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[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:

Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?

What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?

Note: Due to the large number of responses received, this is Part II of the Mind Meld Part I can be found here.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British science fiction and fantasy author. He was born in Valletta, Malta, grew up in Britain, Southeast Asia and Norway in the 1960s and 1970s. He studied at Kingston College, then worked in publishing and as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent. He now lives in London and Winchester and is married to the journalist and novelist Sam Baker. He won a British Science Fiction Association award for Felaheen in 2003, was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Pashazade the year before, and won the 2006 BSFA award for Best Novel with End of the World Blues. He was short-listed for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2002 for Pashazade. The Exiled Blade, third and final novel in his Assassini series, after The Fallen Blade and The Outcast Blade, comes out next spring from Orbit books. He recently signed a contract for a literary novel, The Final Banquet, which will be published by Canongate next Summer under the pen name Jonathan Grimwood.

About a decade ago I had a breakfast meeting in New York with a US editor who’d just bought three of my novels and wanted them slightly re-edited them for the American market. There were a couple of politically tricky points (climate change for global warming, etc) but the main request was that I edit a handful of scenes to make them more obviously from the hero’s point of view. Over coffee she told me she just didn’t get why European writers couldn’t do pov; all that going back and forth between the heads of different characters, often in the same chapter and sometimes the same scene was like watching tennis. She seemed slightly disbelieving when I said we liked it like that. It wasn’t incompetence on the part of European writers, as readers we were used to povs that switched… Recently – within genre – the introduction of a combined US/UK edit – which aims for something that works within both markets – has ironed out loose third and almost abolished omnipotent (at least that’s how it looks to me). For the moment first person and tight third rule.

First person grabs the reader from the off and drags her/him through the action at the same pace as the main character. However, the advantage of first is also its disadvantage; the reader can only know what the main character knows. Single character tight third allows us to wander a little from the character’s shoulder, but action happening elsewhere has to be kept to a minimum.
If you’re a great writer like James Lee Burke (changing to a different genre for a second), then you can combine first, with tight third and occasionally slip into omnipotent, as he does with the Dave Robicheaux novels, but you have to be very good indeed. Multiple tight third, which is what had my US editor ordering extra coffee, allows you some of the freedom of an omnipotent pov without actually using omnipotent.

Having just written a historical novel that alternates between first person present and first person past, sometimes on the same page and often within the same section, depending on how deeply the main character is immersed in the story he’s telling, I think tense is down to what works for that particular novel. Sure, there are rules but they get broken. I remember an editor, a very good UK one, saying he couldn’t imagine epic fantasy written in the first person present. I’m pretty sure a number of people are doing that now.

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[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:

Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?

What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?

A.M. Dellamonica
A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up on Tor.com: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” and one from the cycle she mentioned above, called “Among the Silvering Herd”.  In October, watch Tor for a novelette, Wild Things, that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

As a reader, I’m up for anything. Just put me into someone else’s head, or at the very least transport me to their world, and I’m happy. And if something off-beat like second person is done well, as it is in John Scalzi’s Redshirts, briefly, I’ll even cheer. I also love epistolary POV tales–my favorite is Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, with its hard edges and amazing degeneration of its protagonist’s voice.

I write in past and present tense, mostly in first and a close third omniscient point of view. I’m daunted by omniscient; I don’t mind admitting it. I have the idea that I ‘should’ learn to master this one day and perhaps I will, but I haven’t had a project that’s right for it yet and I haven’t had the space or inclination to say “What kind of project would rock in full-bore, hard-core, omniscient POV?”

My current project is a cascade of third person POV tales, set on a world called Stormwrack. I get to head-hop a lot: I hope, soon, to write something through the eyes of one of this universe’s most challenging, slippery characters. I’m daunted by that, too, but looking forward to the challenge.

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REVIEW: 2011 Hugo Award Novella Nominees

Here are my impressions of five of the six Hugo award Novella Nominees for 2011. Although there are normally only five nominees in any given Hugo category, this year the Novella category had six nominees due to a tie in the nominations. However, since I have not read the novel that it follows (and spoils), I did not read the sixth nominee, Deadline by Mira Grant.

Interestingly, all five of these stories were also 2011 Nebula Award Nominees as well, with a sixth story also nominated due to a tie.

Impressions, comparisons and thoughts on the five nominees reviewed follow.

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[An addendum to the Mind Meld: Monarchies in Fantasy from Gail Z Martin]

Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.

Q: Why are kingdoms with monarchs the default political setup in many secondary fantasy world novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such political structures? What are some exceptions to this?
Gail Z Martin
Gail Z Martin is the author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Sworn Kings series. Ice Forged, in 2013, will begin her new series, the Ascended Kingdoms Saga

I think that fantasy inhabits monarchies for three reasons. First, democracy as a form of governance is very new. Monarchy, oligarchy, or a tribal elder format have been around for a very long time. Since a strong element in most epic fantasy is a setting “other than our own” and often in another time, a quasi-historical setting is likely going to default to one of the older forms of governance, especially if the author is basing the world, even loosely, on a previous Earth culture.
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MIND MELD: Monarchies in Fantasy

UPDATED to include a response from Delia Sherman

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.

Q: Why are kingdoms with monarchs the default political setup in many secondary fantasy world novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such political structures? What are some exceptions to this?
Mark Charan Newton
Mark Charon Newton is the author of the Legends of the Red Sun series. He is also a Whisky addict. Find out more about him at Markcnewton.com

When people create worlds, we only really have our own world for reference, or from which to glean conscious and subconscious influences. Kingdoms, empires, monarchs – that’s all human history has pretty much known. Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens (well, strictly speaking, in the UK we’re still subjects to the queen, but hey).

So in one sense, that’s life. That’s all we’ve ever known.

Emphasizing this point, many fantasy writers tend to look towards history, consciously or otherwise, for inspiration. Given that, aside from moments in the ancient world, there are very few examples where there are not kingdoms and empires, it’s inevitable.

There’s a wonderful season of Shakespeare on the BBC at the moment, which is hammering the point that I think still lingers today, and that’s a fascination with those who hold ultimate power. The pressures. The mental state. The sheer audacity to rule. Holding a position of god on earth. It is the biggest stage in a nation. So what does that do to an individual? What does that do to their mind? Can they ever be truly human? Such questions continue to inspire fantasy writers today. We’re very much interested in that big stage and what it means when ordinary people connect with it in some way.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Dread Hammer by Linda Nagata

REVIEW SUMMARY: A long conflict between a great kingdom and a small, isolated people is the template and background for a story of love, family and duty.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Rich character based fantasy.
CONS: Central conflict revealed a bit too slowly.
BOTTOM LINE: An unusual but not unwelcome turn into fantasy from a hard SF author.

The Puzzle Lands are a small realm on the borders of a noisome and aggressive kingdom determined to bring their rule and their God to their northern neighbor. The Puzzle lands, lacking numbers, are forced to use cleverness, guile, and the natural terrain to resist being conquered by the Hetawan. The tightly knit ruling family, possessing magical abilities and talents, do all they can to keep their enemies at bay, having been bound to that service generations ago.

A prodigy at killing and war, Smoke, on the other hand, is in hiding from his family in the forest outside of the Puzzle Lands.  His chance meeting with a shepherdess on the road will change him, and unwittingly bring him back to the fold of the family he has fled, for good or ill.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

SYNOPSIS: In an Ancient World that wasn’t, Alexander the Great’s ambition is aided and opposed by an unlikely set of characters…and clockpunk/steampunk technology.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: An interesting premise that maintains its freshness by being audacious; interesting plot twist causes readers to reexamine the premise.
CONS: Undeveloped and unchanging characters; unclear and muddled point of view; pacing.
VERDICT: A disappointment that never quite lives up to the promise of its concept.

The year is 330 B.C. and Alexander, in a bold campaign after conquering the Persian Empire, has decided (against his father’s wishes) to take on the Athenian Empire directly, starting with their rich province of Egypt. This is a very alternate history, one where Philip isn’t dead and Athens is still a power to be reckoned with.  Also: Alexander is fighting this war with steampunk and clockpunk technology, ranging from giant machine men to gigantic siege engines to incendiary devices — not to mention strange power sources, large maps rotated on gimbals, and much more.  This is not your typical Ancient Historical Novel, or Alternate History novel, either.

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SYNOPSIS: From an alternate history with both a moonbase and a global thermonuclear war, a band of stranded astronauts seek a new parallel earth to escape to.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Excellent use of space science; doesn’t overstay its welcome; solid prose.
CONS: An ending that feels a bit forced even given its symbolic power.
VERDICT: Interesting premise with solid, if not quite perfect, execution.

The USSR and America have ruined the world in a thermonuclear conflagration. The fate of astronauts stranded on a moonbase, their return capability extremely limited, seems to be to slowly die even as the Earth did. But fortunately, they have a Nazi wonder weapon: a device to move an area into a parallel timeline. And so the search is on for a timeline which has not died in nuclear fire, and has a space program far enough along to help them get off of the Moon.  But even when such a timeline is found, the technical challenges in getting back to Earth are not the least bit trivial, to say nothing of the psychological strains of their ordeal…

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[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: With American Independence Day near, the topic of Independence and Revolutions in Genre is what SF Signal is interested in. From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to The Quiet War, political revolutions are a common theme and staple in genre fiction. What are your favorite stories and novels exploring the themes of revolution and Independence? How do those works explore that theme?

Here’s what they said…

Joshua Bilmes
Joshua Bilmesis the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, and has been an agent for prominent sf/fantasy writers for almost 30 years, including Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, “Jack Campbell,” Elizabeth Moon, Simon R. Green, Tanya Huff, and many more.

When I think of a great novel about a revolution I think immediately of Harry Harrison’s To the Stars trilogy, which I first read in an SF Book Club omnibus decades ago and which I’ve unhesitatingly recommended over the years to authors who want to write great action SF. Revolutions are a serious business, and they often don’t turn out as planned. We can see that today in looking at what’s happened in Egypt over the past year, as one example where the initial joy and excitement of overthrow gives way to the counterrevolution and the difficulties of switching from a revolutionary mindset to one where compromise might need to be made in taking actual power in society. But there is that joy. There are the people who have to plot a revolution and stay one step ahead of the established tyranny. There are the people who have to be the foot soldiers, perhaps risking all including their lives to fight for what they believe in. That’s what a certain kind of fiction is about, people striving against impossible odds to do what everyone says could never be done. And yes, when you do it, there is a moment of real joy and real elation and real happiness, however short that moment may be. Harrison’s To The Stars trilogy may be heavy on the romance of it all, it is a quick action sf read, but should we object in our fiction to getting to experience the romance of it all without having to worry about the reality, for a few passing hours at least?

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Book Review: False Covenant by Ari Marmell

SYNOPSIS:
Widdershins next adventure has the rags to riches to rags thief face off against a strange supernatural foe that threatens an already stressed and threatened city of Davillon

MY RATING:
MY REVIEW
PROS: Widdershins remains an interesting and engaging heroine. Good use of consequences of first novel in developing events in this one.
CONS: The writing isn’t quite as crisp and bright as the first novel.
VERDICT: A solid followup to Thief’s Covenant and second YA novel from Marmell.

In Thief’s Covenant (My SF Signal Review here) we were introduced to Adrienne Satti, aka Widdershins. Thief. Last worshiper of the small God Olgun. Rags to Riches to Rags story. The first novel was very much an origin story, as the jumping timelines gave us a sense of who she was, and how she obtained her unusual background and abilities.

Now, in False Covenant, Ari Marmell moves forward with Widdershins.  Six months have passed since the events of the first novel. Davillon has not been doing well, and neither has our heroine. In a case of kick-them-when-they’re-down, a new threat looms over Davillon, and given her abilities and connection to Olgun, Widdershins may be the only person able to combat it. But even as this occurs, Widdershins has her own personal struggles to deal with as well. Widdershins is finding out that growing up is NOT easy.

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SYNOPSIS: The cryogentically frozen pilot of a slower than light attempt to reach the stars awakens in a startling future more than 12 millennia hence.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Imaginative post-Scarcity worldbuilding.
CONS: Weak and undeveloped characterization; Plotting and pacing issues.
VERDICT: A disappointing return to novels for the author.

The Sleeper Awakes is a common trope in science fiction. A form of one way time travel, it allows characters from or relatively close to our present to bear witness to futures they otherwise never could. Be it “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth, or Buck Rogers, the man from the present travels into the future by means of something like cryogenic suspension, and there proves key to the success of that future time. As a bonus, the trope allows the reader to have a viewpoint character to identify with as he/she interacts with the future world.

I was extremely excited to read Roberson’s return to novels with Further: Beyond the Threshold, where the author has his own take on the genre.

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Welcome back to

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column here on SF Signal about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader and writer’s world. This time, I am going to tackle a writing game aimed at young adults that got its life in a Kickstarter campaign.

A temple lies in the heart of a collection of diverse worlds. In this temple, young pilgrims with the power of flight, and a desire to help people and a propensity to get into trouble await letters from those in need, be it from a child on an asteroid being swallowed by a space whale, or a resort asking the Pilgrims to make sure a contentious convention goes off with success. The Pilgrims then fly off to said world, and seek to solve the problem, and have adventures along the way. After all, they mean well!

Welcome to the world of DO.

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MIND MELD: What Are Your Literary Crushes?

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

This week, we asked our esteemed panelists…

Q: Literary crushes…What is the last genre character, in any medium, you crushed on? What was it about them that appealed to you? How did the author evoke such a reaction?

This is what they said…

Sarah Lanagan
Sarah Langan grew up on Long Island and went to college in Waterville, Maine, where she published her first story, “Sick People”. She got her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her influences include Russell Banks, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Kelly Link, Somerset Maugham, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Eudora Welty, the films of Ingmar Bergman and Will Ferrell, all media relating to Rodney Dangerfield, the movie The Jerk, and the band The Eels. In addition to writing novels, she is also pursuing her Master’s in Environmental Health Science/Toxicology at New York University.

My favorite interview question ever!

It’s a three-way tie! (1) Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers” was very, very cute. I’ve always had a thing for the broody professor type, from “Gilligan’s Island” to Dr. Frankenstein, but Ruffalo sealed the deal, with those big, brown eyes and that clumsy sweetness. (2) Zachary Quinto as Spock in “Star Trek.” Because there’s a theme here: I love the geeks. (3) Paul Bentley from Walter Tevis’ novel Mockingbird. Bentley tries so hard to better himself, and like the others I’ve mentioned he’s an outcast. It’s not just his thirst for knowledge that saves him, and in the end, offers hope in a collapsed and bleak future world, but his love for a woman, Mary Lou, that makes him fully formed. Basically, what I think all these characters have in common, whether via the writing (as with Tevis, JJ Abrams), or the acting (Rufalo), is that they’re rounded and real.They have ambitions for themselves, and also for the world they inhabit. They tend to stand from a remove, observing the follies of mankind, and oping that through bettering society, they can also redeem themselves. It’s a trope I fall for every time. Also, both Spock and Bentley love strong women, which is pretty cool.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

SYNOPSIS: She’s a thief/former aristocrat. He’s a Small God. Together,they fight crime!(sort of).Thief Adrienne Satti, aka Widdershins, navigates intrigue and adventure from aristocratic balls to the underside of a city as the enemies who ruined her rags to riches story return, and with even bigger game in mind than the last worshiper of a little god.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Strong notes of humor, appealing empowered female protagonist, and a good relationship between Widdershins and her unlikely sidekick.
CONS: Novel takes a bit too long to really get rolling, especially for YA readers. Rags to Riches portion of the story feels a bit unlikely.
VERDICT: Marmell convincingly brings his talents for secondary world fantasy to a YA audience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Among Others by Jo Walton

SYNOPSIS: A teenaged girl in 1979 deals with her witch of a mother, faeries, a difficult boarding school life, and the joys of discovering science fiction and fantasy.

MY RATING:
MY REVIEW
PROS: Very personal first person past tense epistolary narrative puts the reader in Mor’s mindset.
CONS: Readers not in the target age group will have difficulty engaging the book.
VERDICT: A milestone in Jo Walton’s oeuvre.

There are books that defy easy categorization and analysis. They are audacious, complex and stunning pieces.  Trying to summarize such books for others is difficult.  These books dazzle, and your words feel inadequate. That is the central problem in engaging with Among Others, the latest novel from Jo Walton.

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MIND MELD: The Best Aliens in Science Fiction

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we sent our distinguished panlists this question:

Q: With the upcoming movie Prometheus, Aliens are on our minds here. What makes for a good depiction of aliens in Science Fiction? What are some examples of that in practice?

Here is how they responded…

Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of the award-winning novel GOD’S WAR and the sequel, INFIDEL. Her third book, RAPTURE is due out in November. Find out more at godswarbook.com

My preference for great aliens is for the really unknowable ones. I like the ones with totally crazy physiology and motives so alien that we find them utterly unknowable. Just giving a human some head ridges and having them practice a form of Buddhism with a funny name doesn’t do it for me. That’s not alien. It’s deeply human. With head ridges.

Right now, I’m partial to the aliens in Octavia’s Butler’s Adulthood Rights, which is part of her Xenogenesis series. The book is about these tentacled, telepathic aliens who reproduce by merging themselves with other species. There are four or five parents involved, and the way they interact with the world – touch it and taste it and understand it – is very different from our own. Writing from a purely alien POV is hard, and not a lot of writers can pull it off. But Butler brings us into the POV of one of the alien hybrids – a mix of human and alien genes – to help make the aliens more accessible. The merging of the two ways of seeing the world, and how that character negotiates these different impulses, go a long way toward helping us understand his “other” half.

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REVIEW: Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

SYNOPSIS:Verity Price fits in her family’s dealings and study of “cryptids” in between her dreams of being a ballroom dancer. Too bad the monsters and a monster hunter have other ideas for Verity’s aspirations…

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Strong and clear first-person narration by an interesting character.
CONS: The Cryptid universe feels a tad crowded in ecological terms; a couple of plot beats, especially at the beginning, feel off; unsure about the leading male counterpart character to Verity.
VERDICT: McGuire starts yet another interesting urban fantasy series.

Non-human sentients and nonsentient ‘monsters’ (Cryptids) stalk the streets of the Big Apple, New York City. Verity Price wants to mainly engage in her dance career but the family business of dealing with cryptids leads her to discover that the population of Cryptids, especially young female ones, is being thinned out. Is it the agent of the self-professed monster hunting Covenant that Verity’s family broke away from years ago? Or is it something much, much worse, something that might threaten cryptids and humans alike? Something thought extinct?

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