Night Prayers

Monday, May 18, 2015
by P.D. Cacek

She was dead.
Truly and honestly dead.
And God had forgiven her, because a golden-haired Angel was hovering above her. And lo, the Angel spoke:

"What the fuck do you think you were doing out there?"

Allison is 37 and single -- and not terribly happy about either. After numerous glasses of sparkling wine at the Country Western bar, which she describes as her home away from home, she takes up a good-looking guy on his offer and goes back to his rather seedy motel room with him.

And wakes up a vampire.

And you thought some of your dates ended badly.

Nor does the hunky guy, Seth, offer her much in the way of "How to" information on her new … uh … nonlife.
Allison: "But … the Head … you know … Vampire always has this army of the undead around him …."
Seth: "Damn, girl, you really didn't have no life, did you? Here's a hint … Movie's ain't real."

With not so much as a copy of Vampirism for Dummies, Allison's launch into her new existence is not exactly a smashing success. Her first feedings are, shall we say, messy. Later, after collapsing in the street, Allison wakes up in Luci's Fur Pit, self-proclaimed home of "the finest Fur-vert entertainment in L.A." The staff consists of exotic dancers Luci and Gina, and a sort of den mother, Miriam, described as "everyone's favourite maiden-aunt … from the Lower East-Side."

They're also all vampires. Luci explains that the job is an easy way to, as it were, have dinner deliver itself.

Allison agrees to be an exotic dancer, but her new employment puts her in the path of Mica (real name Milo), who is the barker for the club (he stands outside the door and tries to lure members of the public inside). He's also a fervent street preacher, determined to save souls from damnation. In fact, he has a scar on his forehead in the shape of a cross  … provided you look at it from the right angle.

Night Prayers is funny, with a wonky and occasionally gross sense of humour, and it's also mildly risqué -- I wouldn't let a 12-year-old read it, but neither the grossness nor the sex scenes are overdone. The ending has an interesting twist, enough that I look forward to the sequel, Night Players -- and I hope Cacek plans to keep us updated on Allison's future in the land of the undead.

My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding

Sunday, July 15, 2012
Edited by P.N. Elrod

This anthology contains nine stories of weddings and the supernatural. Contributing authors include Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Susan Krinard. I'd characterize most of the stories as bodice-rippers with occult touches.
Something Borrowed,
by Jim Butcher
It's not Harry Dresden's wedding but rather that of Billy and Georgia, leaders of the local werewolf pack. However, on the day of the wedding, the bride seems to have gone missing … or has she?

by Charl
aine Harris
This is both funny and topical. Dahlia, a centuries-old vampire, is researching non-magical folks' weddings for her friend's upcoming nuptials ("There was a cage full of doves …. Perhaps they were intended for a ritual sacrifice?") But her friend is also a vampire, and the biggest roadblock to the wedding is something no amount of research can help: it's a mixed wedding … the groom is a werewolf. To say the two groups are not overly fond of each other is an understatement. Imagine a Hatfield/McCoy wedding and you get the overall ambience. Then too, vampires are out of the coffin, so to speak, but werewolves are still … in the woods? Basically, non-magical folk are aware of the existence of vampires but not of werewolves. So to the non-magical population, this looks like a marriage between a vampire and a mortal — which is absolutely illegal. And there are fanatics — from each of the three groups, it seems — who will stop at nothing to see that the wedding doesn't happen.

…Or Forever Hold Your Peace,
by Susan Krinard
This is set in Victorian England — but not the one in your history books. Here, lands and riches and titles are not the only things handed down — so too are magical abilities. But unlike other inheritances, Talent does not necessarily go to the firstborn. (Also, children can inherit a "Residual" form of a magical talent from a parent.)
Wild Magic is something else; it is "not quite respectable," carrying as it does "the stigma of illegitimacy and the Cymry and Eirish rebellions …."
As the story opens, a man interrupts a wedding at the "if anyone here can show just cause" point. He stops abruptly, visibly terrified, and runs from the church. The guests hear a scream and then silence. Everyone pours out of the church to find the man lying dead at the foot of the steps. Shortly thereafter the bride disappears.
This brings the distressed groom to Lady Olivia Dowling and her friend, Christopher ("Kit") Meredith, to help find the bride — and find out what's going on. Olivia is a respected member of society; she carries some "Residual" talent and is the most likely heir to her grandmother's Talent. Kit is from the less respectable side of the magical tracks: he is a shapeshifter who can turn into "Old Shuck" (a ghostly black dog said to roam the Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk coastline).
This was my favourite story among the nine. I like alternative histories to begin with; the people were believable, and the end has a neat twist to it. There was also a refreshing lack of purple prose. A quick Internet search indicates Krinard has written only two short stories based on Lady Dowling and Kit. I hope she writes more.

Didn't Much Like:
L.A. Banks
This story would have been better if the author had not used dialect throughout the story. Dialect is one of those things in which less is more, in my opinion. Too much and you risk making the story more work than it's worth -- or just plain annoying. I realize there is a whole world of different styles of English out there -- but please, any author writing for the mass market should make a serious attempt to write most of his/her story in fairly standard English.

All Shook Up,
by P.N. Elrod
I must confess that I gave up a few pages into this story. I am not an Elvis Presley fan. I can only take Presley and Presley-mania in very small doses and don't by any means consider him to be the ultimate sex symbol of all time. The story's narrator would obviously disagree with me.

Unusual Suspects

Friday, July 6, 2012
Edited by Dana Stabenow

As the title suggests, there is more to this than the occult: it's a neat mix of fantasy and mystery, containing a dozen stories. Initially I had thought of it as a mix of occult and mystery, but at least one of the stories is more science fiction than occult. Rather than going over all the stories, I'll just cover the ones I found notable.

by Charlaine Harris.

This is a Sookie Stackhouse story. I've never read any other Stackhouse stories but I did like the premise of this one: wouldn't it be a great idea if a local insurance agent (who's also a witch) is able to give his clients just a little extra luck?
As it turns out … maybe not …

by Carole Nelson Douglas.

Douglas's story raises an interesting question: legally speaking, can you kill someone who's already dead?
But the confusion goes even deeper. The alleged victim here is a CinSim, short for Cinema Simulacrum. A mix of high-tech and old-fashioned grave-robbing, CinSims are (mostly illegally imported) zombies fitted with computerized chips that give them both the physical appearance and mannerisms of movie characters, and which are also supposed to "lock" them into a particular entertainment venue, so they can't go wandering all over the city (Las Vegas — well, where else, eh?)
The "deceased" — or perhaps "unplugged" would be more accurate — is Sam Spade, as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. The narrator is Delilah Street, P.I. (Paranormal Investigator.)

The big question is, who exactly was murdered: Sam Spade? Humphrey Bogart? Or the unnamed person who provided the corpse? Although Street is not expected to untangle this legal Gordian knot, she does mention it, and it's interesting enough yet doesn't derail the story. What she actually needs to figure out is, first, who drove the corkscrew into the no-longer-animated CinSim's chest, and secondly, what was Spade/Bogart doing off his assigned patch? How — and why — did he slip his leash?

The House of Seven Spirits,
by Sharon Shinn.

Erica, the narrator, who's in the middle of a typically lousy divorce, wonders at one point if her life has been so bad lately that moving into a haunted house is actually an improvement.
And this is not just any haunted house there are no fewer than seven ghosts wandering around. Victoria and Charlotte are longtime friends who shared the house and died of carbon monoxide poisoning (and whose primary complaint is they only got to see the first couple of seasons of The X-Files); Lizzie is a nine-year-old girl who died of spinal meningitis; Edison is a middle-aged man who fell down the stairs and broke his neck (and who is constantly whining that another ghost, Martin, pushed him down the stairs); and the final three: Bradley, Suzanne, and the aforementioned Martin.
The latter trio were the first to die: Martin and Suzanne were husband and wife. Bradley was Suzanne's lover, and Martin shot the two of them when he caught them. He then died of poison self-inflicted, says the coroner's report. Their deaths have tied them to the house, along with the four who died later.
But the official report of their deaths is inaccurate. Bradley tells Erica, "Uncover the lie. Once a living person knows the truth, we will all be free."

The Duh Vice,
by Michael Armstrong.
This is much closer to science fiction than fantasy. It is set in a United States which has a whole new set of laws in place: they deal with resource allocation waste.
Each individual is allotted so many food and energy points, based on size, age and physical need. You use up too much at the start of the month, you go hungry and cold at the end of the month. You try to sneak more resources — you face charges. On a neighbour's tip, the narrator (never identified) goes to arrest a householder on a RAW1 charge — the highest level of resource allocation waste in the legal system. He thinks it's a slam-dunk case — only to find that his own problems are just beginning. The story also contains the most astonishing political stance I've ever seen in any story — one I guarantee you will never see, anywhere, in real life.

Other contributing authors and stories include Michael A. Stackpole (Looks Are Deceiving), Mike Doogan (Glamour), Donna Andrews (Spellbound), John Straley (Weight of the World), Laura Anne Gilman (Illumination), Laurie R. King (The House), Simon R. Green (Appetite for Murder) and Dana Stabenow (A Woman's Work).

Prom Nights from Hell

Friday, June 29, 2012
Fantasy anthology -- no editor listed

This book fell into my hands by a fluke: a fellow volunteer at a local thrift shop was worried about putting it on the shelves because of the word 'Hell' in the
title. So I took it home to check it out. Strictly research, I swear.
On the other hand, it was easy enough for someone who already reads fantasy to guess there would be nothing too gross or horrible in this book -- one of the five contributing authors is Stephenie Meyer, author of the wildly popular Twilight series. The other authors are Meg Cabot, Kim Harrison, Michele Jaffe and Laurene Myracle.

Madison Avery and the Dim Reaper,
by Kim Harrison.
Right off the start … gotta love the title.
In this story, Madison is hovering somewhere between life and death (though the living can still see her -- at least, her father certainly can) after a mysterious hunk named Seth Adamson deliberately crashes the car they are both in. Seth, who has targeted her specifically, then steals her body from the morgue and disappears with it. Meanwhile she has stolen a pendant off him. She has some allies in this new limbo and she has one year to sort things out. Or else. (Nobody specifies "or else" what, which makes it even more unnerving.)

Kiss and Tell, by Michele Jaffe.
Jaffe's heroine, Miranda, has some odd superpowers that nobody can explain and which she tries to minimize. She also plays jammer on a local roller derby team and has a parttime job as a chauffeur with a mom-and-pop limousine company. In the story she finds herself chauffeuring what appears to be a wonky 14-year-old with a fixation on early Madonna dress style. Not surprisingly this is no ordinary 14-year-old. In fact, she's not even human -- and there are other nonhumans after her. The trick is for Miranda to figure out whom she can trust while trying to get Sibby to her proper destination.

I liked them both for the same reason: when I reached the end of each, my reaction was "HEY! WHERE'S THE REST OF THE STORY??" Both have very ambiguous endings and were interesting and well-written enough that I really, really hope Harrison and Jaffe have completed versions out there somewhere, dammit, because I want to know more about Miranda and I definitely want to know what happens to Madison after that year is up!

... OK ...:
The Corsage, by Laurene Myracle, is immediately recognizable to anybody who has read The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs. To the author's credit, she says as much in a very brief intro to the story. It has its own creepy "Be careful what you wish for" factor, as well as some rather gruesome humour.

Meg Cabot's The Executioner's Daughter is about a girl named Mary who just happens to be tracking Dracula's son. She wants to kill him to bring the elder Dracula out in the open so she can kill him -- because Dracula Sr. turned her mother into one of the undead and this is the only way to turn her back. Despite the premise, it's ... just OK.

Stephenie Meyer's Hell on Earth follows Sheba (full name Chex Sheba aut Baal-Malphus), who is a demoness. She's slinking through the prom crowd, causing small problems intended to help set the mental tone for larger ones. With the aid of a rather nasty piece of humanity -- ironically named Celeste -- she is spreading misery, jealousy, anger and lust in waves that are building towards -- she hopes -- an explosive crest (under her mental prodding, one wimpy little nerd has brought a gun to the dance). There are some interesting points and the writing's not bad but when you learn, early on, that the primary male character is named Gabe Christensen, well, there's not much subtlety there -- especially when you find out his middle name is Michael.

Cabot's and Meyers's stories end on the obligatory happy-ever-after note -- though Meyers's ending isn't quite as as solidly fixed as Cabot's. There's room for a little bit of doubt -- but to be honest, not enough to provide any real ambiguity.

The Lancelot Murders

Saturday, March 5, 2011
Fantasy/Murder mystery by J.M.C. Blair

If this book is any example, the legend of Arthur is undergoing some considerable rewriting nowadays.
The Lancelot Murders introduces us to the legendary characters with more human failings than were ever seen in the original legends:
* An increasingly disillusioned Arthur tends to drink too much.
* Guenevere, who is a non-stop schemer and plotter (mostly plotting to yank the throne out from under her estranged husband) is also shown as someone who likes her men BIG and DUMB ...
* and this leads us to Lancelot, who appears to have the I.Q. of a fig.
Blair's Merlin -- my favourite character in the book -- is very similar to the Merlin in Walt Disney's Sword in the Stone: grumpy but shrewd and somebody you wouldn't hesitate to go to with a problem.
And there is no magic -- not a smidgen -- in this version of the legend.
Blair's Merlin is a scholar and researcher, seeking to build on the knowledge of ancient civilizations, who gets increasingly annoyed when people refer to him as a great wizard or sorcerer.
I had some doubts about whether this book belonged in this blog. However, the Arthurian legend as a whole almost qualifies as a fantasy, as historians and interested laypersons have squabbled for decades over whether he really existed and if so, who was he?
So between that ... and the rather startling anomalies in the story ... I figured it fit nicely in here.
As for startling anomalies ... at the beginning of the story, Arthur is advised that a messenger has arrived carrying mail.
Then one of the commanders of the guards refers to an 'intelligence report.'
Come again? Is there some Arthurian version of the CIA here?
Also note that the commander in question is a woman.
However, the author makes no claims that this is even remotely historically accurate. A different author, Peter Telep, in the introduction to one of his books, says the Arthurian legend contains anachronisms and contradictions that are maddening to authors.
Blair takes advantage of this to give us a lightweight retelling of the legend with Merlin as a Dark Ages Sherlock. Merlin alone makes it well worth reading, but if you can get past the out-of-time oddities it's a fun read overall.

Kitty Goes to War

Friday, March 4, 2011
A series by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Norville is the host of The Midnight Hour, a radio call-in show.
She's also an alpha werewolf.
I'd never heard of this series before I picked this up but would like to read more. This particular novel is especially intriguing because it's timely: someone is creating werewolf soldiers to fight in Afghanistan -- and some of them have gone rogue.
Now they're loose in the U.S., and Kitty wants to track them down before officials do. She hopes to 're-humanize' them. The officials just want them ... gone.
As if that's not enough, she's also being sued by a convenience store franchise owner who's ticked off that she has implied on her radio show that his chain is attracting, shall we say, occult nastiness.
If this is a standard example of the series, it's a good series with well-developed characterizations. People are not necessarily all good or all bad. Even the ultimate rogue werewolf has his reasons -- not that they excuse his behaviour. And she explains the behaviours of the other members of the rogue pack in well-informed terms of lupine behaviour: wolf packs are highly organized, and the social order is extremely important. So what happens to the pack when the alpha male disappears?
Besides the human viewpoint, Vaughn also frequently attempts to give us a wolf's-eye view of things -- the view the werewolves have after they transform.
Overall it sounds like an intriguing series and one worth following.

Rotten Relations

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Everybody knows Santa Clause, right? The jolly fat guy in the red suit who brings presents to all good little children.
But did you ever wonder what it would be like to be Santa's child?
Especially in the 20th century?
"Every year it's the same. Out all night on Christmas Eve, he flies back in the middle of Christmas Day with a massive sugar hangover, and falls into bed without a Merry Christmas to anyone."
So grumbles Santa's not-quite-thirteen-year-old son, self-nicknamed 'Sharp,' in Home for the Holidays. It's one of 15 stories in the anthology Rotten Relations, edited by Denise Little.
" ... It's worse since Dad took over the Three Kings' outfit. Months of negotiations in Mexico, conference calls from Spain at all hours, and now he insists on going out personally on Epiphany, too. Rides a burro behind the three camels. Comes home with saddle sores."
"Sharp" sounds like every other kid slouching through the early teen years since adolescence was invented -- your parents have gone from people you look up to, to the leading citizens of Dorkville. But it's done with such humour that you can't help but sympathize, even as you grin.
Among the other stories:
* the real lowdown on why Grendel killed Beowulf (father abandones pregnant girlfriend, never bothers to check up on his son, you gotta think that's gonna

come back and bite you ... in this case, literally ...),
* an intriguing retelling of Cinderella (which girl did the prin
ce really get?),
* a follow-up to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Young Goodman Brown -- by no less than a distant relative of Hawthorne's,
* Mirror, Mirror cleverly
combines the Snow White story with a recognizable retelling of the story of Henry VIII -- though his last wife bore little resemblance to the story's narrator;
* the story of the young Arthur, from his arrival in Sir Ector's household until
his coronation feast, told from the point of view of Sir Ector's son Kay -- and this Arthur has an edge that we don't usually see in the legends.

My favourites in this anthology were Mirror, Mirror and Cuckoo's Egg (the Arthurian tale), mainly because I've got a strong interest in both Tudor history and Arthurian legend to begin with.
But most of the stories are engaging, clever and well-written.
Of them, I found Rapunzel -- The True Story to be the most confusing. The last line reads, "The scene held for a moment before collapsing into something else, as all the scenes of life are wont to do, especially if a witch is stage-managing them." I could wish that the witch in question had stage-managed things in a more orderly fashion; I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening as the story progressed.
Still, given the wide array of familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, times and storylines, it's an anthology that's well worth checking out.