Come one, come all! The Carniepunk Midway promises you every thrill and chill a traveling carnival can provide. But fear not! Urban fantasy’s biggest stars are here to guide you through this strange and dangerous world. . . .
A carnival is the perfect setting for an urban fantasy story. The strange characters, promise of magic, threat of sinister doings alongside unhealthy treats but mostly just a lot of fun. Some of these stories were fun diversions and others made me want to jump off and find another ride.
Most of these stories tie into series and some standalone better than others. I’m only familiar with one series (the Iron Druid Chronicles, which I’ve reviewed here before) but other contributors are big names in the genre. The Iron Druid tale is a nice piece that adds to that world but it suffers from the same problem many of these stories do. If you’re not familiar with the characters and settings then it feels like jumping in on a TV show in the middle of an episode in the middle of the second season. Too often I was pulled out of a story by wanting to figure out who the characters were and that their deal was.
Only one story lead to me finding and checking out a book from the series. “The Three Lives of Lydia” is part of the Blud series. Normally I wouldn’t go for steampunk vampires, but the story is sweet, sinister, and has an intriguing twist at the end. Seanan McGuire’s “Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open, Lonely Sea” is a sad tale where the threat comes from outside of the carnival. The other stories that stand out to me were more because of how lost I felt reading them but overall, it was a good bunch of rides and attractions and I didn’t feel sick at the end.
I’d recommend this to fans of any of the authors in the collection but I don’t think this would be the best introduction to individual authors. People who like sinister carnivals but aren’t into any of these authors may enjoy Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Urban fantasy collections are plentiful and may offer better stories to get acquainted with new authors though.
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The newest book by beloved memoir-writer Jeannette Walls is simply stunning. With remnants of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, we follow the journey of 12 year old Bean and her older sister Liz, as they come to grips with a borderline and abandoning mother, travel across country to find their uncle in order to avoid the DCFS, and try to find work in 1970’s small town Virginia. What I find so engrossing about Walls’ novel is the matter-of-fact-ness in her 12 year old protagonist Bean, as she subtly lays out her naiveté and her stubbornness to get justice done, when in her own life there was only injustice. A truly great novel.
Hunted by Kevin Hearne
I’m a series reader and over the years I’ve dropped more series than I’ve kept up with. They become too repetitive, or the characters simply never change and keep making bad decisions and never seem to learn, or sometimes the world conspires against the main character who is miserable but fighting on, or every book is a new villain that has to be different but somehow is just like all the ones before it.
I thought the Iron Druid Chronicles was headed that way. It was Atticus–the main character who’s a 2,000 year old Druid and the last of his kind–who wasn’t changing. He adapts to fit in with the culture he’s in but he’d done it too well and sounded like a kid who spent all his time on the internet and thought LOLcats was the height of human achievement. Internet references worked to show how Atticus keeps up with the times but eventually they distracted me from the story and had me hoping some thunder god would zap Atticus into silence for a while. But while he was making annoying jokes, Atticus was also angering various gods and now he’s dealing with the consequences so he’s let up on the dorky jokes. Some of the gods are so sick of him that they cut him off from routes that would let him travel between planes and around the Earth and they started hunting him. In the last book, he had to find a way to bind his apprentice Granuaile to the Earth to complete her training to become a Druid. Now she’s fully bound and they’re on the run.
Previous events triggered the beginning of Ragnarok and removed some of the safeguards that would have prevented it. As a Druid–a protector of the Earth–Atticus has to take action. Part of that is convincing gods from outside the Norse pantheon that Ragnarok is bad for them, too, and they should stop messing with a lowly Druid and work together to save the Earth. He has some successes and for once doesn’t seem to have done lasting harm. After Hunted, I’m back to looking forward to the next book and seeing how well Atticus deals with being known to so many powerful figures and what his role in the world will become.
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff
In November, 1942, three American military planes crashed in Greenland near the Arctic Circle. The second plane was searching for the first, and the third plane was also on a rescue mission. Several men survived two of the crashes, and men in planes, boats, motorsleds, and dogsleds tried desperately to locate, drop supplies, and then rescue the crews. Some of the men were rescued, but others remain frozen in time, under a glacier somewhere in Greenland.
In 2012, the author participated in (and helped fund) a joint private and military expedition to Greenland to find one of the planes, now covered by a glacier, and bring the missing servicemen home. Two real life adventure stories combine to make a fascinating book. Flying in whiteout conditions, survival on a glacier, tales of heroism and endurance make for a memorable, suspenseful read. I wanted to keep turning the pages to find out what happened, then and now. The author has written another World War II adventure story, Lost in Shangri-La.
The Human Division by John Scalzi
From award-winning science fiction writer John Scalzi, another adventure in space. This book was originally released as a serialized ebook. It’s good to have a Plan B. For Colonial Union administrators, Plan B is the unarmed courier ship Clarke, with Captain Sophia Coloma, Ambassador Abumwe, her assistant Hart Schmidt, and Lt. Harry Wilson, on loan from the Colonial Defense Force. Unknown to the crew of the Clarke, they are sent on diplomatic missions that have not gone well for various reasons, including the disappearance of one of the ships they’re replacing. The division referred to in the title is the disconnect between the humans on Earth, and the humans in the Colonial Union, a collection of human colonies, which has been using the Earth to staff its Colonial Defense Force, whose recruits have a short life expectancy. The Clarke and its crew have various adventures which include Harry and the secretary of state’s daughter, a doctor, skydiving to Earth from a space station that is under attack. It was entertaining to read, and I look forward to the serialized sequel. For more about the book and sequel, visit the publisher’s website. For more about the author, visit his well-known blog.
Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore
Necromancy isn’t pretty. That’s probably why we don’t see many characters who practice it. Most of them are villains who are expected to do terrible things. The occasional good guy who uses necromancy usually just talks to the dead with the occasional raising of an individual. In Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore, the main character shows that necromancy isn’t necessarily evil but it’s not for the squeamish.
Eric Carter was born with a knack for the dead that set him apart even in his magical family and community. His parents were murdered when he was a young adult and Eric killed their killer. He fled his L.A. home and left his younger sister behind to be taken care of by a friend. He spent the next 15 years learning more about his magic and never setting down roots. He regularly converses ghosts, occasionally visits the dead side of things which is dangerous for humans no matter what their power over the dead, and gets dead things to stop hurting the living. What he hasn’t done is thought much about what he left behind. When his sister is murdered, he’s pulled back to L.A. where he finds out the people he cared about have moved on. Two of his old friends are ready to help him out despite his abandoning them, but it’s not so easy for Eric. Neither is figuring out how to get rid of the man he thought he killed before he left.
Dead Things has been recommended to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It has the same noir feel to it (Eric gets beat up just as badly as Harry does) and lots of magic being thrown around. The action is intense. There’s a lot of introspection but Eric sees a lot more grey in the world than Harry does.
This book gave me two things I’ve been looking for: a protagonist who’s motivated more by justice than strict morals, and necromancy being used to do more than just talk to the dead or raise armies of zombies. It’s not clear if this is the first in a series and I think I’m okay with this. As much as I enjoyed the read, it’s a very intense and dark world that may work better as an occasional side-trip than a regular destination.
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Cassie, 16, is a survivor. Her little brother Sammy, age 5, might be. Cassie’s two prized possession are a rifle and her brother’s teddy bear. She has lived through three attacks on Earth by an orbiting spaceship, and has survived the 4th wave so far. The 1st wave was a pulse that knocked out the power grid. The 2nd wave caused tsunamis, wiping out the coastal cities. The 3rd wave was plague. The 4th wave is worse; some humans now have alien minds. After her parents die, Cassie is alone, possibly the only real human left. Her goal is to reunite with her brother. She meets Evan Marshall, who takes care of her when she’s wounded. Distrustful, Cassie is stubbornly independent and resists his help. At a military camp, Cassie’s classmate Ben meets Sammy, now nicknamed Nugget, and befriends him. As Cassie, Evan, and even Ben try to rescue Sammy from the camp, the awful truth of the 5th wave becomes evident, and Cassie doesn’t know who to trust. Sequels are planned, and movie rights have been sold. 5 book trailers can be viewed on the author’s website. This is yet another dark, post-apocalyptic book written for teens, of which there are many, but the 5th Wave stands out for the exciting plot and the memorable characters, who manage to be likeable under the most trying circumstances.