Urban Fantasy was coined to cover the broad range of books where there’s a secret world behind the real one. It’s broad and fuzzy. You’re got China Mieville’s Kraken, as a horror/detective. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as whimsy/self-discovery, De Lint as pure whimsy, Treadwell’s Advent series as horror/suspense.
But there’s a tight sub-genre, where you’re obviously in it or you’re not: the Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. Here are the rules they follow:
o Start with a secret world type book, Harry Potter or UnderWorld. Steal a chunk of folklore, a mash-up if you can, and change some of the rules. This is important – people are partly reading it for your unique take on how the secret world works. As the series progresses, you have to add and explain more of the rules.
o The heroine is either a non-human species that can pass as human, or a 1/2-human of some sort (if you have nothing else, a 1/2-vampire will do, but you can be much more creative than that.)
o Be some sort of detective or policewoman or guardian involved with the supernatural. But she’s inexperienced. We’re learning about things along with her.
o Be recklessly impulsive. Charge into the master vampires lair screaming that he killed your sister, but he admires your pluck and gives a hint who really did it. Go clothes shopping while the demon is trying to kill you, since you can’t stand being cooped-up. Sometimes she does stuff just because some jerk man told her not to.
o Terrible taste in men and/or just bad luck. Fated to have decent guys scared off. Her complicated romantic life should take up at least half of the story, including important plot points. Somewhat like the TV show “Charmed.”
o She should feel old, or unattractive and generally insecure. The one dress that makes her look half-decent gets troll blood all over it. This is partly from the Romance novel roots. She’s identifiable.
o Her female friends and relationships are important to her (and the story) possibly also her mother. Consoling a friend about a break-up is equally important as finding the killer.
o Many of the problems are best solved with empathy. If you get to know all the monsters and really listen to them, rather than listening with your fists, you get the satisfaction of making everyone happy. It’s about solving the problem, not killing the problem. But it’s not a Romance novel. In those your man must solve the problem with your loving support. In an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, the heroine solves her own problems.
That sounds made-up and extremely specific, but it’s a thing.
Someone once explained to me that a definition of Emo music was anything inspired by The Cure, which meant The Cure was not Emo. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter is somewhat similar. That world is off-the-shelf Master Vampires and Werewolf packs – from Anne Rice and roleplaying games. And the main character is a human with no special powers (except a License to Kill, the undead.) It’s not an UFDR, partly since it inspired them. What that series did was show you could sell a somewhat cheesy secret world book by adding strong Romance elements.
I saw Seanan McGuire at a convention. She was in full “act like a fabulous author GoH” mode, and could not stop giggling about exploding hawiian rats and the tapeworm she ate on purpose. So, she doesn’t take herself all that seriously, which is the right attitude for her books.
The world starts as the standard “every mythical creature you’ve even heard of is real”. The twist is that the secret society keeping humans safe succeeded hundreds of years ago and are now killing harmless, even useful beasties (cyptids). Our heroine is from a break-away family devoted to the study and preservation of supernatural ecology, and hunted by the now-evil monster-killing group.
The rest of the twist is inventing crazy creatures – talking mice (that’s all they do) and dragon princesses which look human, breed asexually, live in groups and single-mindedly collect gold by working regular jobs, then buying the gold.
Personality-wise, our heroine fails to be insecure or mousy — rather the opposite — but she’s got money problems and has trouble meeting guys since she works so much: protecting the harmless monsters of New York; a waitress in a non-human topless club; and a contestant on “So you think you can dance.” That feels sufficiently weird to make up for her being 100% human with no special powers. But she’s trained in ninja skills since birth to where she spider-mans (parkours) everywhere over rooftops, and her famous renegade family name is like a magic spell to make monsters cooperate.
The plot is a fine sprawl of mostly personal problems mixed in with the adventure: she has to help her telepathic non-human sister; the guy from the evil monster hunters is in town, and he is smoking hot; and humans mutated into lizard-men are using monster blood to power a world-blasting magic spell. What really puts this over as an urban fantasy female detective book is the big baddie: he turns out to be friendly. The evil lizards were worshiping him, but also keeping him sedated. A little friendly conversation, which no man would have considered, solves the crisis.
The rest of the series gives us more books with this character, but then we get more family members. There’s her roller-derby younger sister, and then her brother. He’s a non-violent researcher, clumsy around women, with strong female role models — but he’s still written as a guy, blundering through his book as a big, dumb ape, occasionally listening to his girlfriend who’s the brains of the operation.
This one is a little too Romancey – two men are fighting over her the entire book – but otherwise it hits the bizarre secret world mash-up elements extra hard, including a SteamPunk setting.
The heroine is a female detective in Victorian London trying to make a name for herself, but insecure about being a commoner. And, of course, far too impulsive. She’s human but somehow immune to magic, and heals very quickly. Later it’s teased she may be part fairy creature. She can get advice from an all-powerful ghost wizard who haunts her, or have devices made by her (non-ghost) genius SteamPunk engineer friend.
Romance-wise, a powerful (also non-ghost) wizard is in love with her, along with her childhood friend who is now a police chief (in other words, her beaus are a rich noble and a brawny working man). She sleeps with the policeman to try to cure him of robotic were-wolfism (an old folk remedy?), but seems to prefer the sexy wizard.
The bad guy is a masterpiece of crazy mash-up: an (1)Ancient Evil banished by (2)Celtic shamen, who is trying to (3)impregnate women with demon babies using (4)robot (5)werewolfs recruited from a (6)secret nobility sex club. Take a moment to think how this begins. You’re correct if you said “she’s called in to investigate women being molested by robot werewolves”.
SteamPunk tends to handle female characters in 2 ways. One is having them smarter and stronger than any man. Yawn. The other is what this book does: she’s told what women can’t do at every turn, is treated like a fragile flower, but does all she can within those confines, including a few things a Victorian man couldn’t get away with. If you like clever oppressed women, this has got it.
This is another steampunk mashup in a “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” vein. The heroine is a free-lance police investigator who sometimes changes into her alternate aggressive form because her father is “Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and she inherited it. Changing shape instantly heals her, but her “Miss Hyde” form is extremely impulsive and constantly second-guesses herself.
Besides Dr. Jekyll, this swings for the fences in mash-ups. Jack the Ripper is in love with her; real-life computer pioneer Ada Lovelace is a robot who runs the secrete police along with an immortal Sir Isaac Newton. Her boyfriend is merely a werewolf secret policeman. Bad guy #1 is “A Picture of Dorian Grey”, while future bad guy#2 is an evil version of reclusive government mastermind Mycroft Holmes.
The plot follows the rules pretty well: lots of personal problems, some are clues; stupidly impulsive behavior which sometimes advances the plot; romance which also advances the plot; worries about money. She even gets to attempt to reconcile with her partly estranged father.
The backstory for the Agent of Hel series is that Niflheim, home of Helheim and the underworld ice-goddess Hel and her dog Fenrir, also popular in 1980’s Marvel comics, is now in Wisconsin. A big chunk of the North country is Hel’s territory as far as secret magical things go. Newly chosen to represent Hel is a sweet, charming 20-something woman who doesn’t really understand her job. She’s supposed to resolve disputes and in general make sure nothing supernatural bothers Hel. Despite this all being Norse myth, we get the usual hodge-podge of non-Norse monsters.
As you’d guess, she’s bad with boyfriends and extremely insecure, especially that she’s just faking her new adulthood. She doesn’t really have any powers except for her “Agent of Hel” badge, but is secretly a half-demon (Norse mythology doesn’t have demons, but whatever.) The town is pretty much Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. Lots of friendly people, many of whom know magic and are glad to help; or brew tea; or just talk since everyone knows everyone else.
We get a lovely minor plot involving a misunderstood “Monsters Inc” type creature which is supposed to be harmlessly frightening kids. We get another which takes lots of careful listening to witnesses, help from her friends, and having to trust a guy with whom her relationship may be going too fast. The main plot gets violent near the end — big rockets, mercenaries, and an exploding giant monster — but it’s really the result of an argument between the bad guy (the bad woman, it turns out) and her husband, which our heroine helps smooth out.
Something that snuck up on me: Hel has given her a unique magical relic dagger. She just tucks it away. Much later, she realizes it’s meant to be flashed like a badge. It never occurs to her that she could, you know, stab people with it, since violence never solved anything.
The Harry Dresden series is a neat counter-example of why it’s the urban fantasy female detective romance genre. He starts out the same as the women: a broke wizard/detective who protects humans from monsters. Along with werewolves and necromancers we get three crazed sub-types of vampires (blood, sex, and, uh, torture?). The whole fairy world thing has plenty of detail, plus demons and so on.
Then onto the story. He’s a junior member of the Wizards’ Council and resents it. Hmmm…a female character would have fought for that bit of recognition and ability to contribute. The stories focus much more on the main baddie: Harry doesn’t visit his mom, check out his sister’s possibly seedy new boyfriend (he has no family), or find a clue while searching for a spaghetti recipe in an ill-fated attempt to cook for a new love interest. In fact, he doesn’t worry about maintaining his friendships and normal life since he has neither. He’s more of a traditional burnt-out gumshoe. Back to the friends, he doesn’t even get out much to talk to contacts for info. There’s a magic skull in his basement for that.
His main problem solving skill is blasting things with magic. He has both kinds — fire bolts and force bolts. That’s his defining character trait (Harry Dresden — as in the city that was famously firebombed at the end of WWII — and he’s a fire mage. Tasteless, but makes its point) Otherwise he rushes towards the most obvious clue and is easily distracted by anything shape-changed into a curvy body (of which there are lots). Like all true men, his magic is powered by rage. Sure, female detectives experience rage but it makes them do something unlady-like — not merely punch harder.
All-in-all it’s a huge difference. The Dresden series is about a stereotypical schluby male. It’s mostly an action series. Nothing wrong with that. The author sure goes all-out to develop the secret world and to follow up in future books. But it makes you realize how much the “real” UFDR genre is about how women can fight monsters as well as men while being true to 3rd wave feminism.
So here’s the plot of the one book in this series I read: the main character has a pregnancy scare, but it could be due to her magical powers, so she puts off taking a test. Afer the funeral of a murdered relative, she has to make all these excuses for why she can’t drink anymore, then more to her mom at home for why she isn’t guzzling coffee.
After beating up a guy trying to kidnap her, her boyfriend finally helps her take a test. It’s positive and he freaks out and runs. Then she stays with her mom after bad guys kill another relative and burn down her apartment, and there are all these cats from a third murdered relative.
Later she gets blood all over herself from killing a bad-guy, so the other man who might be the father of her baby takes her home and lets her wear his clothes. She tells him about the baby, and he’s excited about being a dad, and they bang.
But then she finds out her boyfriend only freaked because of a dark secret about his own mom. He asks to marry her, even after they find out she’s not really pregnant, and they almost have a courtroom marriage with their new bodyguards as witnesses (the first bodyguard was lost in another bad guy attack.)
Then they both get kidnapped by a different guy who’s kids are being held by the Mob, so they use their magical powers to rescue the kids and catch those badguys. Back at home, Mom has even more cats from murdered aunts. Then her boyfriend proves she can count on him, by helping capture the main bad guy. Finally, she and the other guy who wanted to marry her agree to stay friends. The End.
As you may have figured out, this is just a straight Romance novel. What should have given it away for me was the traditional romance cover: woman in front, two male models flanking, both a little too close to her. The publisher is TOR, which doesn’t have a specific romance division.
What’s interesting is how a Romance author decided to borrow from Urban Fantasy Detective. The secret world part is that some people can shape change, but only into people they’ve met. But, the ability to copy a particular person is an Aura, and you can show an Aura you know to another shape-changer. Even that tiny amount of detail is still more than Romances need. I think it’s touching.
This is book 7, “All Your Wishes”, in a series billed as “paranormal romance.” That’s code for “straight-up romance with a werewolf instead of a pirate” but the blurb made it sound like more than that. Besides being book 7, where a decent series might have gone bad, it’s by only one of the original two authors.
The overall backstory is that magic and science have coexisted for a long time. Stores sell real magical charms, there exist combo magi-tech items, police forces employ mages, anti-vampire fences are common, magic is taught at college, and so on. Fully integrated and has been that way forever, so that’s fun.
The main character is a 1/2-vampire, 1/2-siren (and 1/2-human?) detective, running her agency out of a former church. Her best friends and employees are a werewolf, a wizard and a ghost. Nothing special there. Going against tradition, she’s generally happy with her appearance — vampires are a sexy pale and siren’s are naturally beautiful. But at least she has personal problems: sirens magically bring out the catiness in other women. 1/2-vampires need to frequently eat gross baby food and smoothies, use lots of sunscreen, and they lisp horribly when their fangs pop out. She was turned into one by an attack and is not happy about it. She’s also cursed.
Her boyfriend is a sexy mage with strong hands from a family of powerful mages, and also mobsters. They start off with a big unspecified argument that sounds like it could be trouble — maybe about children. But he’s gone the entire book visiting his dying mother, then is out of the picture. We never find out what the argument was about. The extent of their romance is her calling him to ask if his mom is dead yet. In the 1-year-later epilogue she gets together with a cute, minor character with whom she previously had no sparks. I’m guessing the absent writing partner handled the romance parts.
The plot starts with a client being told to contact her by his oracle, then being told to take the case by her oracle. As everyone knows, you can’t ask oracles too many questions. That goes for readers, too — she just has to help the guy, OK? In case you’re wondering, she solves the case by doing something else her oracle told her to do.
The plot involves some super-evil wizards from a previous book, including an evil wizard ghost sworn to kill her (also from a previous book) led by a super-powerful demon. We never find out their plot, but they free a super-powerful genie for it, who, shocker, gets out of hand and possesses the main character’s body. It either wants to go home, or to free a bunch of other evil genies (in the book, it’s the first — it’s a genie serial-killer of other genies and wants to kill the judge who sentenced it; but the book jacket says it wants to free an evil genie army).
At the very end, she wins by realizing she has friends. Literally just realizing. She suddenly remembers she has siren telepathy, which she has been using through-out the book, and reaches out to all of her friends at once. That gives her the strength to shake off the genie control. Then she executes the plan she made with the only female genie-keeper and her young son (who hasn’t yet grown into a swaggering jerk of a man). The stupid male genie-keepers were all “you’re not an initiate and are the wrong sex. You can’t do anything”. That’s why diversity is important.
Various secondary events are crammed in:
- Her main evil ghost enemy dies after her heart stops in an unrelated matter (her death was it’s Unfinished Business.) After constantly being reminded of how lethal wizard ghosts are, this is the first time we see him. He just shows up, says “I was actually just hanging around waiting for someone else to kill you, and they did,” and poofs away. Just in case readers notice that she’s had her heart stopped several times before, her friends ask her “haven’t you had your heart stopped several times before?” and she explains this was extra-stoppy, so fooled the ghost in a way the previous heart-stops couldn’t.
- We very briefly meet a guy from a previous book, just so we can see him dead later.
- After she wins, it’s mentioned in passing that the main group of genie-keepers were all murdered elsewhere. Why? She already won, so it’s not part of the plot. Maybe it’s to avoid fan fiction using them?
- Also after winning, we go back in time (she’s literally taken back in time) to see her boyfriend get killed by the mob (remember the one she briefly talked to in chapter 1? That guy). I feel like she could have watched a video, or maybe since the story was over, done that at the start of the next book?
- Immediately after winning, a good genie, who had been calmly watching them fight the evil one, pops up and brings her werewolf friend back to life (he died one page ago, which inspired her to fight harder.) Those wacky genies and their rules.
The book respects the rule where we have to learn more about the world. We get professional magic-using hitmen. We learn demons can appear without being summoned if they time it exactly when a ghost dies, since that makes a tunnel from here to the otherworld. Genies are new to the series, and we learn genie-keeper powers come from being part genie. If you use mental telepathy in an airport, we learn the TSA has magic to spy on it. Then we get a nice teaser: her mom is not just a siren, but a siren queen, and she’s been summoned for important sea-princess business in book 8.
Deadworld is another one that looks like an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, but is clearly just a Romance, borrowing from the UFDR genre. I like it since it so clearly shows that however much you borrow, you have to decide whether you’re a Romance or not, and there’s a big difference.
The cover is a woman with leather pants and a halter top posing with a gun in an alley. No men, but I’m sure the next printing will add one. So that wasn’t a clue, but maybe the acknowledgement to the local RWA (Romance Writers of America) should have clued me in.
The borrowed elements are checked off pretty quickly: the main character works for the FBI with a semi-psychic partner on X-Files type cases. She has serious personal problems making her incapable of having a stable relationship wih a man. The secret supernatural stuff is, well:
The villian is a vampire, sort of. These vampires don’t have fangs – they get the blood out with mundane means. But they can teleport at will, and the mind-control is jacked-up to be instant and irresistable (but don’t worry – they forget to use it during the big fight scene.) They also have no weakness to sunlight, holy ground, stakes to the heart and so on. And they actually get more energy feeding on ghosts. But sure, they’re vampires and not the necromancers which they clearly are.
The male lead is a good vampire who only drinks artificial blood. Real blood is pretty easy to get, but whatever. He was also a sheriff in the old West. And a quirky private investigator with a sexy psychic assistant and bombshell vampire best friend. He’s also rich, owning the company that makes the fake blood. You’d think he sells it to all the other good vampires, but that would be overthinking things.
He also owns a 5-star Italian restaurant, and is an execellent cook himself. In case you were wondering, the book explicitly describes how hot this makes her. I just want to see him on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Chef Ramsay can ask him “do you feel employees are afraid to come to you with problems, you being a vampire?” and “answer honestly, how many customers have you mind-controlled into not bothering you about undercooked linguine?”
In case you haven’t put it together, the book does it for you. He’s referred to only as one of: cowboy vampire, sheriff, vampire PI or vampire cowboy sheriff. I was going to be impressed, except a quick search on “Vampire Cowboy” shows a book written a month later, May 2011, named “The Zillionare vampire cowboy’s secret werewolf babies.”
One way you can tell its a Romance is the sheer amount of pointless small talk. When she questions the leading man as her murder suspect, we learn what kind of coffee they all drink, who brings it, how good they thought it was and what types of pastry they all like. The millionare cowboy vampire likes “very strong” coffee. That sounds cooler than saying he likes French Press, which is how you’d actually order it. The FBI women like their coffee the same way they did in the previous two scenes. Later on, she accepts tea (from the FBI psychologist who warns she can’t outrun her personal demons, but allows her to stay on the case.)
After the questioning, we get more small talk with her partner about how hot the guy was, how hot his assistant was (the main character’s now lesbian assistant psychic partner gets to have sex once before being killed. No! You murdered my partner, just when she came out to me!!) But it’s fine, since dead psychics always come back as helpful ghosts. This sounds like the origin story of “FBI agent with ghost partner,” but I assume the author’s dog ate those pages.
It’s a pretty typical romance: lonely, incomplete heroine meets mysterious man; is suspicious at first, but slowly sees how studly he is and comes to rely on him. She’s tricked into spilling her deepest secrets (as he shows her how powerful vampire hynotism is,) but he accepts and appreciates her flaws. He has to put her to bed and fantasizes about taking advantage, but doesn’t. Then her love helps him overcome his greatest weakness (he doesn’t think he can beat the bad guy. Yes, her role in killing the bad guy is only to inspire her man. Evil vampire even dies off-camera, his purpose accomplished.)
My favorite part is when they meet the ghost of his dead wife. She gives him permission to move on to a new woman, and adds that she and the other ghosts approve of his new girlfriend, then disolves into spirit power.
Ah, let me explain. The final showdown is where the bad guy has trapped the ghosts of his victims, drinking them as needed for power (but he’s a vampire, not a necromancer, dammit.) I guess they could break a window to let the ghosts out, but whatever. The bad guy very, very slowly calls one ghost at a time to suck from (I guess mind-control works on dead people.) The good guys watch, since it’s just rude to attack people before they’re fully powered-up. Then the ghost best friend and the cowboy PI’s ghost best friend (who isn’t dead, but we’re long past asking questions like that) help him to accept the help of all the ghosts who believe in him, saving the day.
As far as an UFDR, this fails in a lot of ways. No one cares about the secret history of these vampires (in fact, the teaser for the next book involves an opiate-addicted cop possessed by some new type of vengeful ghost.) The book teases at “how would an ancient vampire survive in a modern world,” but then just drops it – evil vampire is apparently also rich, and has an evil chauffer, but that’s all we get. Ghosts can’t affect the physical world unless the plot requires it.
The heroine doesn’t drive the plot, doesn’t grow except to realize she can love the leading man, and there are no subplots involving consoling her best friend who got dumped that also affect the main plot. There’s no approaching problems the way a woman would, with empathy and sudden rage at being treated like a helpless chikita.
The plot just moves ahead, having them react to evil guy. Vampire PI has been locked in a recurring struggle with him for 100+ years, but just dribbles out things during a chase which he happened to remember. This is all fine for a Romance – the plot is supposed to be bland and generic enough so you can focus on their burgeoning desire. But it’s the opposite of a world-building, character-driven “finding her way” woman-led story.
The spine says “Kensington Urban Fantasy.” Wikipedia says Kensington also has a Romance line, but doesn’t mention the Urban Fantasy one, and Kensington’s web site doesn’t mention lines at all. Even so, someone is probably getting fired over this mix-up. I feel bad, but if an editor couldn’t tell this was a Romance, maybe they should change jobs.
The main thing I noticed after the first book in the “Black Wings” series is the main character has no friends. Her gay BFF co-worker is quickly killed, and then it’s just her and 2 men fighting over her affections, a fiance forced on her, and 2 father figures fighting over who gets to control her. I feel like this is the genre “innocent country girl comes to the intrigue-filled court”. She’s even a virgin. Her main hobby is sharing junk food at home with her talking ca-, errr, mini-gargoyle.
Secret world premise #1 is her job, which is meeting people when they die and escorting them to the afterlife portal. It’s pretty easy — the office tells her who, when and where ahead of time. You just have to fly there using your free pair of black wings which also turn you invisible. You may recognize this from the 2003 TV show “Dead Like Me” (but no wings). I was excited — the TV show had funny deaths with life-lessons from the departed. But this has 2 routine deaths and then drops the idea. Drops it hard — everyone in the office is killed by the bad guy. Secret world premise #2 is “court intrigue with demons”. All of the fallen angels from millennia-ago have courts, and ancient feuds and complicated bloodlines. It’s revealed our heroine is 1/2 demon on 1 side, and the only living great-great-great offspring of the demon king on the other, so demon court is the big through-plot.
The baddie in this book is a mindless thug demon. We never find out much about his deal. Early on he dismembers her BFF to make a point. Dialogue is roughly: “his soul didn’t taste as good as your mother’s when I killed her 15 years ago, but better than the other souls of people I routinely kill”. So I guess her mom is dead. Not to be one-upped, we get to know her sometimes-friendly witch contact, who is then murdered by her long-lost demon father to make a different point.
Romance-wise, her boss is a total jerk to her, but we find out at the end it’s because he’s in love with her; and is also a wizard with a mysterious non-human parent. More important, a mysterious super-sexy stranger (OK, a half-angel/half-demon sent to protect her) rents the downstairs unit and flirts with her. She’s angry when she finds he enspelled her ca-, errr, mini-gargoyle, but only so she can forgive him later. Sadly, he’s so low-status in the demon world that their love is forbidden. Her demon father then assigns her a foppish arrogant husband, but clever thinking on her part puts off the marriage for a year. We also meet her new demon 1/2-brother, and her great-great … grandfather on her mother’s side. To sum up: 6 dudes are fighting over her.
The plot with the brutal demon seems disposable, like a romance plot. It kills scores of people – way too many for this genre. In a change-up near the end we get a lovely vision from her first demon ancestor, reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s “fun” prose. We learn the evil angel (not a demon — an evil angel) who killed that ancestor is now the lover of Crude Demon Bad Guy (this is the only sex scene in the book). In the final scene our heroine incinerates the bad guy with her magic (somewhere in there she’s learned: blue flame blast, white sunforce blast, and a third with unknown color). That’s followed by her monologueing, getting her heart ripped out as the bad guy comes back to life, using her regeneration power which works on everything but hearts, discovering she doesn’t need a heart after all, and killing the bad guy for real this time. While we puzzle over that, her 6 lovers/fathers/??’s walk in and say how much they all really want her now.
I saw the author “Tina” Henry at a SciFi convention. Seemed very nice. Said she was upset this series was dropped by the publisher, but was onto a new series with a different take on Alice in Wonderland. Here’s the weird part: as I bought “Black Wings” I got a free copy of another one of her books, “The Mermaid”. It was great! Not hot-romance-great or cool-monsters great either — it was legitimate-book-you-wouldn’t-be-embarrassed-to-let-people-know-you-read great. Who gets a cheesy series cancelled and says “well, I guess I’ll write a terrific book while I think of another silly series to start”?
As we all know, movies follow this sequence: excellent foreign film, not-as-good American remake, completely unwatchable franchise that rakes in the cash. I wasn’t seeing quite this with UFDR books. I think the ’70’s “Interview with the Vampire” led us to “hey! Supernatural erotica can sell”. Urban Fantasy developed on its own. But then I read 1987’s “War for the Oaks”. It’s the Excellent Foreign Film of urban female detective romance.
One of the first things you notice is how gradually, through actions, we find out who’s who. It takes a few chapters to figure out which bandmate is her best friend. In fact, it takes those chapters for them to realize it themselves. We’re not quite sure about her loser boyfriend, then he becomes a bad-guy, then we realize we had the clues all along to know why, and that he wasn’t really the bad guy. That’s 1000% of the character development you get in the dumbed-down successors.
The secret world is the Fairie court and nothing else — good elves vs. evil fairies for the fate of Minneapolis. We get short scenes where the 2 queens size her up — this is what later authors realized they could stretch into long, predictable hissing contests. But most of the book deals with forming a new band, writing songs, getting naked with the new cute lead guitarist, and practicing. I’ve heard the author, Emma Bull, play “Girl needs a knife” with her one-night-only partly reformed real-life band. It’s quite good. She’s writing what she knows.
It turns out the main character leading a band is the actual point. A faction of fairies is ready for a new way and they picked a human as a cat’s paw. At least one fairy joins her band since he’s curious what life is like not as a knight in fairy court.
Her eventual love interest is the cruel fairy who scouted her as a semi-disposable symbol. He trusts her with secrets, but only as part of his plan. But then he comes to admire her more and more as a unique person, while she begins to understand the personal risks he’s taken to find a “new elf way”. An even cuter but less complicated fairy knight is starting to see her as a legitimate leader before he bravely dies. Several extended sex scenes ensue.
It ends in a set-piece — a battle of the bands between good and evil. Seems silly but it only happens because she proved her resolve to the Queen, knew enough to manipulate the evil queen into accepting, gained the trust of the “good” elves in her band, figured out a winner-takes-all challenge could be done at all, and gained the courage to actually do it.
All of the parts to exploit are there: romance and courtship with two guys, being thrust into the secret world, and solving problems by making friends. Any potential author who reads it would think two perfect halves of a thought: I can’t write that well; but people probably want more action, more critters, and more flirty banter, which I can do.
Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is about an Asian female superhero team. But mostly about one member who fits the mold. It’s different, but the same.
Way back in Book One (this is Book Three) a demon army invaded earth. They’re like demons from the old TV show “Charmed” — the important ones have unique magic powers. The invasion was stopped and demon powers were flung into nearby humans — three young Asian women who become superheroes. Our main character got telepathy and weak mind-control. The backstory today is that the former invasion portals are being watched and rogue minor demons hunted down. This book follows a new demon trying to sneakily invade. So that’s fine.
Besides her powers, the main character is just a human 20-something. She has the self-control and attention span of a 6-year-old, driven by the insecurity of being the baby of the group. She’s also manic – every faint idea of hers spirals out into poster-boards, vague plans, imagining the universal acclaim she will receive; then a new idea an hour later. That’s bit much much, but it’s written well enough.
But, true to the genre, she’s devoted to her many friends. She has a meaningful conversation/cry with her older sister, makes up with an old frenemy, comes to respect a formerly aloof female friend, and, after many, many attempts, finds out why she can’t romantically set up her boss with anyone. Her boss has a small, ugly dog (named Pancake). Babby-sitting it will become an important plot point.
Romance-wise there’s one guy. She couldn’t possibly consider anyone else. There’s a full page where she fantasizes about him in the shower. Then we get two lengthy sex scenes detailing exact tongue and hand placement to bring her to ecstasy. I miss the old days where a vampire’s teeth sent waves of full-body tingling and we could move on.
The atmosphere is explicitly 3rd-generation. The super-hero team has a fan-site. The biggest demon portal is in a couples-friendly sex shop. The demon traps are explicitly based on the movie GhostBusters. The fights have time-outs for the heroes to argue about fashion — the bad guys wait. The main character works in an independent bookstore specializing in paranormal romance series. Made-up ones. The main character’s favorite is an out-of-print dragon romance series; the store’s biggest seller is a 9-book series about slutty were-porcupines, loved for the sex scenes.
The main plot is too fast. As readers we don’t get think we know what’s going on, only to be surprised. They’re investigating too many leads without enough people, accidentally landing in fights, going back over old evidence they forgot about while having shower sex, and in general being hit with bad-guy stuff faster than they can react. I think they defeat the bad guy. He was attempting to steal back all of the loose demon powers for himself, maybe?
Hopefully you’re distracted enough by everyone’s personal growth. The book ends with the main character satisfyingly realizing she’s been working too hard to impress other people, purposely avoiding responsibility. She decides to take more of a leadership role, doing what we’ve known all along was her true passion. And, seriously, that’s what these books are about.
Mercy Blade, by Faith Hunter, is the 3rd book in her longest “Jane YellowRock” series. Her other series is “Rogue Mage”. The book is a mess, like it was written by a hastily trained AI. Before making fun of it, the interesting parts:
The heroine, Jane, is a were-cat, but only sort of. She’s possessed by the spirit of a were-puma(*), which allows her to change into a puma(*) plus any animal she’s collected bones for, and may eventually turn her evil. Potentially more fun, the cat-spirit talks to her, in pidgin English. I say potentially since all it says in this book are things like “wolves bad”. But it does move the plot along, once, by yelling “mine” at the sight of her possibly ex-boyfriend with another woman.
In this world, vampires go insane for a decade after first being created, and frequently there-after. To make up for that, since ancient Babylon vampires have existed in symbioses with a rare shape-changing reptile who can cure their madness. And, for no good reason, these creatures also mercy-kill kill young vampires who never regain their wits. This is the “Mercy Blade” from the title.
In the series vampires are known to exist by the general public. In this book, to great shock, were-cats reveal themselves. We find out that most were-creatures breed true, but not werewolves. They’re the lowest of the low, and can only grow the pack by biting humans. Other were-creatures ban this. To enforce it, they keep trained Scottish swampmen with super-speed and razor claws, whose only job is to instantly murder were-creatures who bite humans for fun.
(*)The book calls her “skin walker” spirit a mountain lion. But it’s set in New Orleans (which we learn is 90% bars and brothels, and no longer serves cajun food). The thing is, Mountain Lion is more of a Western states term. In the South it’s a panther. Puma, cougar, panther, mountain lion – all the same animal. But I digress.
The book has romance elements, but odd ones. We start with she and her boyfriend naked in bed, waking up. She drools over his abs and worries that she hasn’t told him her dark cat secret. In the last book, she rescued him in were-cougar form, but he got partial amnesia. But it’s only a matter of time since he figures it out, since he’s a human elite cop. We don’t see him for the rest of the book.
Next she meets a slim, sexy swordsman who saves her after he tricked her vampire boss into sending her to meet him at a werewolf bar (did I mention the plot makes no sense)? All of the werewolf clawing requires them to partly undress each other, tending to wounds. Sexy swordsman has powerful love magic, which she resists, but he’s still very mysterious and cute. But in later chapters he’s dropped as a love interest. I think the author forgot about it. He’s just a good guy who we think is a bad guy until the last minute, since he acts suspicious for no reason.
We next turn to her boss’s bodyguard, who Jane had a fling with before dating the cop. He begs her to let him hide out at her place, then makes sex jokes until she agrees to slow-dance with him, which gets her all hot. Then in a later chapter he sneaks into the shower with her, and she likes it (it’s even more gross and rapey than I make it sound).
All through the book, she worries about her missing man. He’s been seen with a hot redhead, and isn’t returning calls, but he’s probably on an undercover seduction mission with the sexy werecat lady, or the werewolf lady, or both (it’s both). Jane can’t decide whether to wait, or to cheat on him (this is where her puma-spirit yells “mine”, letting us know she still wants him).
There’s a disturbing amount of, well, I’ll let you decide: after most fights she’s described as bloody, dirty and stinky. She has to strip down and hose-off the gross sweat and dried blood, new blood; some hers, some not; out of all the crevices of her body. The shower scene actually happened when they both needed to clean off lots of blood at the same time. Later, her boyfriend was being turned into a werewolf. It involves biting, frequent sweaty sex with the she-wolf, and being kept covered in her sweat and saliva in-between. So, that, uh, stuff, is part of a real-life sex fetish, right?
Unlike a real UFDR, she doesn’t have female friends, or any friends, and very little inner life. Her best friend is her female roommate who’s out-of-town for the entire book (we get one brief phone call with her near the end). Sub-letting is a friend of her friend, a visiting witch, who Jane dislikes and hasn’t talked to. The only two other women are the werecat and “werebitch”, who both rape her boyfriend, are otherwise huge sluts, and die horribly (by the Scottish lizard, and by Jane). Jane’s closest relationship is with her on-call all-male ultra-competent merc squad. Altogether, the book feels like more of a male sex-fantasy of the “I’d let her dominate me” type.
The writing is a awkward. My favorite passage, paraphrased, is “I loaded the Benelli M4 shotgun with seven 2.5 inch standard rounds”. Mmmm… 2.5 inches of standard, shiny brass in that Benelli, over and over, 7 times. Oh, yeah. This is part of the long description of weaponing up, including the many stabby hairpins she wears in her waist-length hair. She’s endlessly taking them out and putting them back in as she’s searched, or goes out dancing. She never even uses them.
Later on she’s chatting with her former lover about security (she works for the vampire who runs the city. Yawn) — it’s a full page of techo-babble about cameras. I don’t want to tell the author her job, but consider: “I told him about how security cameras have changed in the last 10 years, and he was so impressed he kept looking up to my eyes before going back down to my breasts again. I felt his hot breath on my neck as I described sliding in fiber optic cables”. See how that tells us what we need to know without putting us to sleep?
Rounding out this whole mess is the plot. The werecats of Africa are in town for a public high-level alliance with the vampires of New Orleans, to ensure their safety. Map check: New Orleans is in America, near Florida, which is nowhere near Africa. An alliance is pointless. Sexy elf swordman is the anti-insane-vampire creature, but was thrown out 50 years ago after an argument so bad they forgot he was vital to vampire ecology. As were the werewolves, somehow. In unrelated news, the werewolves have proof the head vampire committed murder and are pursuing legal remedies, but get bored and hire wizards to help them attack vampire HQ instead. Finally, the head vampire’s 2nd bodyguard has also been killing people and planting evidence to frame the sexy head bodyguard. Jane sums it up herself at the end: “there were so many plots no one could have figured it out”.
Did I mention she’s multi-cultural? Well, she is. Her last name, YellowRock, is a family name, not just made up by flower-children. And I’ve now done more with her multi-racial background than the book does. My biggest beef is she works for a basic city-running soulless evil vampire. You tolerate those guys, and work with them against something worse. You’re not suppose to work for the evil monster.
My ultimate beef is the deux ex machina of scent. At first her puma form can smell some clues. Then she turns into a bloodhound to really track one particular scent. Then she can smell werewolves in a moving car from 1/2 a mile away, and from the scent of her boyfriend’s day-old blood she can tell he’s not dead. The last few chapters — she just smells everywhere she needs to be. Which is fine, since anyone who has a problem with that has quit reading long before now, anyway.
The best part of The Black Parade, by Kyoko M, are the heroine’s feelings for her ex-boyfriend. He’s a Mr. Right who treats her well and wants a family. But she’s terminally poor, since her supernatural job pays nothing; an orphan – her mom died in an asylum – and drinks too much. He’ll eventually realize she’s not good enough. It’s sad when we find out that she’s the one who broke it off. The second best part are the 3 men fighting for her love: the ex-BF comes back and still wants her; she saved an Angel’s life and now he’s falling in love with her; and an evil demon, who originally needed to human-sacrifice her, is now sending her sex dreams to convince her to be his slutty eternal queen. Third best part: her platonic angel friend watches her put on a slinky black dress to go on a second date with Mr. Right. On the way she’s cut-up all over by a monster, forcing her to cancel the date and go back to the Angel. He’s forced to magically heal her by kissing and licking her entire body, during which time they realize they love each other.
So, obviously, the book is totally a paranormal romance. A later one in the series even has a cover from the “bare-chested faceless man” stock photo collection. If you care about a plot, or anything unique, skip this series. But it’s interesting since it seemed to start as a real book.
The jacket tells us she needs to help 100 ghosts find peace in two years, or she’ll be sent to hell. OK, it actually starts with her having 2 days left to save the final 3 ghosts. Even so, that could be fun – a tense 3 days. We see her scrambling to work at the diner, the manager with a soft spot for oddballs like her, her best waitress friend who knows not to pry and is mid-divorce anyway. It turns out ghosts are easy to save, but you need to be ready at all times, work quickly and be a good listener (you don’t get “Dead Like Me”‘s notes with the time and place). She meets an oddball ghost, who gets more and more mysterious… . Then we toss all that away. It’s like someone took over 1/3rd of the way through. The plot is now incompetent demons chasing her and her angel bodyguard, as they “banter”.
I’m going to say that the author isn’t trying for a genre – she’s just writing what she feels like, which is an urban fantasy for a few chapters, then a romance where the action jumps around much more than usual. I can’t even figure this one out: at the end of the book, after being only about her and her magically buff angel lover, the heroine goes to ex-boyfriend Mr. Right’s funeral. His mom never liked her, but his sister was always really nice. They catch up before the service, and make plans to stay in touch. That makes no sense in either genre. But it’s kind of fun.
“The Ghoul Vendetta” is the 4th book in the 2013 “SPI files” series. It features a female agent in a global, government sanctioned monster-hunting agency. She’s human (booo!) but is an ultra-rare “seer” who can ignore illusions and in general detect magic (which we’re told is a big deal in this world since all badguys have easy access to illusion spells). Does she go rogue after not being allowed on the big cases since she’s a woman? Nope. Is she about to be fired for making friends with the not-so-bad members of the bad guys? Also, no. She’s pretty much a team player contributing to the overall sucess in her own small way. Huh.
But what about her boyfriend? Well, he’s a sexy David Bowie-style dark-mage goblin. At the start they’re on what may be a date. Before one fight they kiss for the first time. Then again for the first time before the big battle. Then a wise all-knowing ghost tells her boyfriend “you have already chosen this world over your own because of your love for this woman”. That would be pretty hot if anything led up to it. We’re told he’s a big shot in his world, but don’t really see it. We also can’t see why he loves her — she seems to be just doing her job. Her over-protective alpha-male ex-special-forces partner (who has a steady GF) and her goblin lover face-off — very hot in a “you may have fooled her but you’ll have to do better to get my aproval” way — but then he’s kidnapped. We’re left with the SPI beauracracy deciding he’s worthy of a Visitor’s pass since he seems to really love her. Be still my heart.
The plot doesn’t gel. Some bad guys have been stealing random artifacts to drain later as magic-power-batteries. Some of them are the bones of ancient vampires, which apparently all vampire families secretly keep as their most precious treasures. The opening scene has the bad guys kidnapping a very well-protected vampire child who is quickly killed, but also slowly tortured for info on where the bones are (which we later find out he wasn’t trusted with). We meet a vampire head-of-household, but then the vampire angle fizzles out — the bones are just generic “power” for some ritual. At the end the good guys just return them, to the vampires.
We get a tour of SPI’s CSI-like many high-tech labs with quirky specialists, where they discover the bad guys were only disguised as teleporting ghouls (“ah yes, ghouls are well-known teleporters”, no one said) but are really disguised evil sea-monsters trying to break the ancient curse which banished them. They don’t seem very banished to me. The main character helps figure this out, and at the end saves the day with a rash action, but otherwise we pretty much just watch a government agency functioning from her point-of-view.
We never get much of a feel for the bad guy. He seems to delight in taunting her partner. We find out the bad guy ate her partner’s ex-partner 5 years ago, right in front of him. The big baddie even gives them what turns out to be a super-magic spear artifact enchancted to kill badguys and attuned to her partner which awakens his racial memories of being a descendant of one of the good guys who originally banished them. You’d think that means big baddie needed him to “awaken” for some spell to work — nope. He merely thinks giving your enemies a priceless artifact is a way to really make them angry. The big battle has dragons out of nowhere which don’t really do much, and is saved by ghosts of the ancient good-guys, riding in Lord of the Rings style, completely out of left field.
I’m at a loss. The series isn’t about a woman doing things her way in a man’s world. It’s not about a single woman able to hunt monsters and have a full life on her terms, including romance. It’s not even close to a Romance novel — it has less of that than most non-Romances. The secret world part is bland — werewolves and vampires and generic magic (the bad guys here are the Irish “Fomorians”. Nice, but been done before). I’m going to refer to an earlier comment — this series is for people who wished CSI-Miami had a magical spin-off told from the perspective of a junior female investigator. Which is apparently a thing people want.
“Curse on the Land” by Faith Hunter is the second book in her “SoulWood” series. It’s bad, but in an interesting way. I rate it “readable”.
The main character fits the genre in an original way. She’s a former child-bride in a polygamous cult — naive, meek, inexperienced, but gaining confidence and trying to make her place in the world. This naturally gives her a large family of 1/2-siblings with problems. Nell needs to take time out as her younger sister needs guidance with her new magic powers, her sick father won’t see a doctor, her mother frets about her well-being, and an evil tree is taking over the church grounds. Side-bar: highly recommend non-fiction “Escape”, by Carolyn Jessup about growing up in a polygamous cult.
Sadly, she’s not a 1/2-vampire or 1/2-anything. But she’s a new weird thing, so it’s fine. She can interact with the woods around her house (named “SoulWood”) to sense everything for miles (yes, Harry Dresden did this 5 years earlier on his Island). Almost immediately we find her powers work on any old patch of land, but SoulWood is still special since she needs to feed it blood and human lives!?! (which she doesn’t do in this book, but did in the first one, but he was evil). Oh, she’s also immune to most magic, since Earth Power, and she senses she could tell the ground to suck in and devour people. But all she does is sense the ground, mostly saying “yup, this land also has a curse on it”.
Romance-wise there’s not much, but it’s fine. Nell was scarred by her underaged forced-marriage and is surprised when people think of her as sexual. She has a girlhood crush on her werecat partner because he’s around a lot and is nice to her. Good enough.
The required “banter” with her friend team is surreal. It’s trite, way-too-personal, way too much, and male were-creature friends hang out at her house shirtless. A few of them even turn into werecats in her driveway and when she gets home unexpectedly they almost murder her. So funny! Her boss even pulls her off the case to take her on a date to a movie. Wait, her boss? Yeah, the problem is that her “friends” are really her co-workers in an elite government X-Files division. The banter is disturbingly inappropriate here, even if it is how the real Department of Homeland Security behaves.
But another plus, she’s suitably impetuous: in chapter one she almost dies after using her ground powers to go deep and check out an unknown powerful thing. That happens again at a crime scene. The third time she’s learned her lesson, quickly gets a helpful read … and then goes too deep and is almost killed by an unknown powerful thing. She ignores her boss’s orders, but mostly since the whole team is ignored until we need them for the plot.
Yet one more plus, she solves the evil tree problem by just talking to it. Very genre-appropriate. Except this tree saved her life (in the first book, which we’re told over and over) and her first plan was to completely murder it, and she only tried talking after that hilariously failed. Oh, if you were wondering, the tree was acting evil because it was bored.
Now onto the funny parts. Her main job is to take readings with a super state-of-the-art magic detector. It has multiple dials for vampires, werecreatures, ummm, Frankensteins? The author gives a really nice explanation of calibrating to ambient levels so that we always get a reasonable result. But to raise the stakes, on every reading the meter “redlines”. Why did they explain calibration to us? After a few redlines we get a reading where one of the levels is a little shy of the top. But it was a fake-out. The next dozen reading are back to redlining. This is one of the few Urban Fantansy Detective Romances that had me laughing.
Around chapter 4 we meet a top-level agent: young, beautiful, and so important and cool that she ignores all of the agency rules. Everyone says so, and speculates about what she is and what her powers are. Two paragraphs later we’re just told she’s a dragon. Mega-girl announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. She drops by twice later to sign their paychecks or something, and announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. Most boring dragon character ever.
Late in the book a co-worker gains a new power after almost being killed — the power of infodump to advance the plot. I’m actually fine with it: the plot’s been very slow, I don’t have any confidence our heroine can solve it, so give me the outline.
This last funny part is hilariously summed-up in the book. After the plot is over she muses that she hasn’t followed-up on any of her family’s problems. Yes, we all noticed that and don’t know why you’re reminding us. Very little happens in this book.
Sexism is completely botched. Putting up with, mitigating, and getting around sexism is a big theme in a real Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. In this book, one guy makes one sexist remark and he’s pounced on by everyone else. The heroine doesn’t even have time to be offended before he’s apologizing. That’s just boring wish-fulfillment. She didn’t have to overcome anything.
Finally, get ready — this is a spin-off! Nell talks to the Jane YellowRock character, from that series, twice over the phone in this book, and Jane saved our life in book one. Doing that makes no sense. The Jane character is a generic bad-ass male-fantasy filth kinkster with no inner life to speak of. It’s a different genre.
Oh, geez, the plot: a spell got out-of-control, everyone who cast it is just silently waiting to die, but Nell convinces them to shut it down. I can’t believe I forgot that!
Series tend to go downhill. This was my thought after reading the third book in Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. It was so bad, but also popular, that I figured if must be riding on just how terrfic the first one was, titled “SkinWalker”. I’m here to tell you — the series was never good (and was never an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance).
By the third book the main character was boringly overpowered. That can happen — she could have “figured out her powers” in the first two. But no — it turns out she’s always been a heavily-armed expert martial artist with a plot-destroying sense of smell, fast regeneration, shape-change into any animal, and a BFF sorceress providing her with bleeding-edge magical gadgets. The first book hints at a time when she was trying to make it in the world, but then we find out it was merely proving she was the best magical monster exterminator in the world. She’s always been boringly OP.
But surely this first book gave her interesting motivations and unresolved angst (which were solved by book three). But again, not really. She can’t remember her past and claims to be desperate to learn where she came from. That seems to have potential. But when she meets people who know about her, she’s all “hurry up with your boring story old man — I need to kill this bad-guy for the reward”. That’s right — her motivation is money. She spends more time worrying about getting the early completion bonus than trying to find out who her parents were.
But what about the weird cat spirit trapped in her body? In book 3 it’s pretty much nothing, but it was a serious conflict in the first two, right? Again, nope. Midway we find out she doesn’t need the cat spirit for anything — all of her animal and smell powers come from her alone. The cat spirit is just comedic relief. There’s some fake drama about it being a soul she stole, but then we learn that only happened because she absorbed the cat’s body to heal herself after it sneak-attacked and mortally wounded her (wait — she could always do what?)
But maybe book one had a great plot before the author ran out of ideas. Once again, nope. The plot is she has to catch a bad guy, wanders around accidentally seeing him a few times; he runs but she easily smell-tracks him, then grossly out-guns him during the final fight. He appears to have a clue about her past which might make her hesitate — oh, never mind, she slaughters him without a second thought.
Technically there’s complication where a secret wizard’s guild is also hunting the badguy. But it’s a page long — we learn about them at the top, and they’re killed at the bottom. There’s a sub-plot with illegally created wild vampires which seems beneath her since she’s been slapping around the city’s master vampires pretty easily. Oh, it was crammed-in to be her mission for the next book. Yawn. Of course, in solving the case she made an enemy of the city’s master vampire, but we’ve already seen how harmless he is.
Two of my favorite out-of-place bits: she explains her good dancing by saying she took a class. Why do we need to know that? She can out-fight every man, just because, but I guess we need her dancing skills explained in the most out-of-character way. Bit number two starts with her pointlessly browsing stores. For this scene only, pretend she’s poor and has bad fashion sense. She’s thrilled as a helpful shop girl picks out an inexpensive but nice-looking mix-and-match set of tops and skirts. Did pages from a different book fall into this one? We already know she owns and wears custom sexy outfits fitted with special weapon holders.
Onto what we really want to know — what about the gross-out sex kink stuff from book three? Is that the major draw of the series? Oddly, no. She’s nude or nearly nude in many scenes, but we get no lengthy descriptions of that particular kink — no hosing mixtures of bodily fluids from her delicate areas and so on. I like to imagine that the author read fan-fiction based on book one and two, said “oh my!”, thought some more, and decided to give her fans the filth fetish they really wanted in books three+.
Bad Girls Drink Blood (S.L.Choi) has some fun ideas and might be worth reading, but I’m not excited for book two. A big reason for that is the super icky love interest. It’s yet another noble Prince-in-Exile, who’s also vastly older than her. And he’s been grooming her since she was 15, deciding she was “a female worthy of him”. At first she’s shocked to hear this, and a chapter later … decides that it’s normal and actually very romantic.
If you can stand to read more, on to the secret world. It’s fine. In this universe the supernatural stuff is public knowledge, but doesn’t mix much. Most magic critters live in fairyland, anyway. Mainly, humans get a thrill out of visiting non-human establishments. It’s not the usual dark demons and vampires and weres. What we get are Sun fairies and Moon fairies (which are more like elves). Awww. Sure, there are a few big scaries, but we also get furballs who can sprout fangs and teeth but even then are more cute than deadly. And there isn’t a Master Vampire in sight.
Powers-wise, she’s super strong, heals by drinking blood, and is weak in sunlight. So she’s a 1/2-vampire, right? Well, no — she’s a defective artificial creation for The War called a Blood Elf. That’s neat, right? Of course we later meet some normal full Blood Elves and learn a little about why she’s defective.
Her personality does a great job of pushing what the genre wants. She’s the muscle in the family detective agency, so thinks of herself as stupid, especially compared to her sisters. Back in fairyland she was put down by Sun Fairies and has clearly internalized it. She wants to hate them for being all stuck-up and elfy, except her adopted sister is a Sun Elf. She can’t use magic and dislikes fairies who can, but her other ice-fairy adopted sister is super-magical. Basically, she’s a mess of insecurities and constantly second-guesses herself.
Back to the secret world and plot, we find out the war was Sun vs. Moon elves. But later that it was just one Moon elf faction. We learn that the art of portal-creation was part of the war, possibly involving long-lost druids. We learn that fairy magic is channelled through foci, which all come from living crystals. We get some Moon Elf politics. It’s fine.
But then come the story problems. Having met her True Prince so early, flirting and new guys out of the equation. The main bad guy is cartoonish — pure evil, even using evil spells, with a needless personal hatred towards our girl, sexist insults included. Then the last half turns into pure action. As the danger escalates, the answer is turning our heroine into a killing machine. She just punches and smashes and slays her way to the ending.
And that’s the rest of why I have low hopes for book two (and there will be one — this book is AKA “Bad Fae Druid Book 1”). As part of the turn to action, she just wins. We started with her and her two adopted sisters trying to keep the detective agency afloat, living in a makeshift house hidden by the human/fairy border, questioning whether she’s good enough. By the end she’s saved the world, is besties with the queen, has cathartically overcome the effects of childhood bullying, has found her soulmate, and has gained an epic new power.
Sure, we still have her sister with a crush on that insufferable Sun Fairy royal guard. And she just met her mysterious grandfather. And I guess we could watch her prince boyfriend put his kingdom back in order? But her conflicts are done. Book 2 will probably be named “Queen’s Assassin: Conquest of DarkRealm”.
Magic Burns by “Ilona Andrews” (a pair of writers) is surprisingly well-written. It starts out fast — a phone call from a fellow mercenary wakes our herione from her lonely bed. He needs help on a tricky rush job. After agressively negotiating her cut, we jump ahead to where she’s dodging fireballs as her friend sneaks up on the bad guy. And wouldn’t you know it — just as they conk him out, the city-wide magic flare-up fades back down. Wonderful. Right away we know who she is and learn that magic flare-ups are going to be a problem. Next we get a slick info-dump. A bystander sees our hero’s Order badge and says “my kid wants to join them, but how are they different from the Merc’s Guild?”. Very nice. Oh, right — both guilds handle monster problems, but The Order does it with extreme prejudice. She works for both, so that might be fun.
Non-sucky writing continues through-out the book. That long description of a random cave — it will be important later. Her werewolf and vampire friends arguing during the walk to the park — we learn something about how those groups interact in this world. This may be the only book of this type without a page of “banter” about who loves coffee more. But before more praise of the writing, the checklist:
A point agianst: she’s single with no family or close friends. But during the book she adopts an orphan and gets close to a work friend, sharing their deep secrets and getting werewolf relationship advice. So that’s fine. Then more bad: she’s comfortable with her appearance and is also pretty confident, probably due to her skill in “martial arts killing machine”. Yeah — it’s one of those books. But to, uh, humanize her?, she’s super horny, nearly leaping at every man she sees (this is a reverse spoiler for me — now I know she hasn’t had sex at all for the entire first book. This is the second book). As we know, women objectifying men is fine.
Another point against: she’s not a weird magical 1/2-thing, but she makes up for it with Dark Secrets! Who taught her deadly illegal magic? And why can she control the undead? She might be 1/2-something.
The world’s backstory is where it gets good. The magical world is public, mostly since decades of high-magic waves have wrecked parts of the city, messing-up tech during the peaks. Crossbows are the go-to weapon and transportation is either horses or dual gas&magic cars. Werewolves have sub-tribes for various species (were-hyenas) and the “alpha” is just a strong guy who’s a decent politician. Witch covens fall into registered and unregistered. Vampires are two-part things. Humans can be turned into mindless killing undead, known as vampires. But real vampires are this other race who stay at home while puppeting the mindless ex-human vampires around town. And everyone seems to be using Fomorians now. They’re public domain “real” Irish monsters (and were even in the Dungeons&Dragons Monster Manual from the 1980’s). Those are the bad guys here.
Hitting the genre straight on, she solves plenty of problems by merely talking. Her first case is all talk. Her ex-boyfriend wants to marry the werewolf leader’s ex-girlfriend, and they want her to get the leader’s permission. After some brawling, she hears his side, they about ex’s, and eventually he comes around. That’s exactly how to do it — “the main plot is trying to murder me, but I have to talk about that wedding”. The book has a sexy, mysterious who’s-side-is-he-on guy. After the usual taunts and sexual tension, she gets him to admit he’s only groping her out of reflex. He actually like farm girls and is very lonely in general, and she convinces him that doing a good deed for some sexy witches will help him with both. Then we find out they were on the same side of the main plot, but his macho lone-wolf attitude kept him from realizing that. She’s practically a monster therapist.
She even pretty much solves the main case by talking. She’s the one’s able to meet with everyone and figure out the whole picture. Sure, she’s randomly attacked and solves a few problems by fighting, but it’s not too silly (well, sometimes it is, like when she’s flung across the room by an ogre-swipe and somehow counters by cutting out its liver. But what are you going to do?)
The writing and plotting is decent enough that one quibble stands out. Early on she’s looking for a little girl’s mother, which includes visiting her old house (a clean one, apparently proving she’s a good mom). A chapter later she awkwardly explains that she left a note for the mom while she was there. It’s as if the authors realized they messed-up but weren’t allowed to go back and fix the old chapter.
All-in-all this is a great book in the genre. It’s got enough romance, enough relationships, that strong “this is a job for a woman” vibe. My only worry is it may be a bit too well-written. Readers of these like two pages of the bad-guy calling her a stupid C, then two more pages of him yelling “how is a lowly woman beating me!”. Here the badguy only calls her a B the minimum required number of times (twice).
“Ebony Gate: The Pheonix Hoard, book 1” (Julia Vee & Ken Bebelle) is discordant. It’s got the elements of a proper UFDR but it’s just so epic. Our hero Emiko thinks she wasn’t good enough for her ex-boyfriend from a rich and powerful family. But her family is … one of the big eight and even more rich and powerful. She’s a dissappointment to her family — they wanted her to be a ninja-assassin and she … became a world-class ninja-assassin. Mid-book she’s worried that her business partners might learn her secret; which would be a great thing to worry about if she didn’t have 19 hours and 34 minutes to save San Fransisco from demons. In short, she’s written as down-trodden when she’s anything but and that’s, well … discordant.
But first, let’s go over the UFDR parts. The secret world is “Big Trouble in Little China”, but more secret. They mind-wipe or kill outsiders who find out. That’s easy because many of them have a natural magic power. Toughness or telekenisus or air blades, but also the ability to make all sorts of mind-affecting charms. It’s got a bit of Harry Potter “there’s a spell for that” silliness: when they need to repair a valuable magic item, Emiko remembers she might be able to find some repair-o-mancers. But overall the secret world is fine, and I’m curious what gets added in the next book. Oh, for more fun, they’re all actually refugees from another dimension.
She’s pathetic enough with sufficiently low self-esteem for this genre. She’s not concerned about her looks, but she’s very, very insecure about her lack of magical talent. Everyone in her family and her world has magic, except her. And her parents really are disappointed with her. While she was an excellent family ninja-assassin, she quit several years ago after an especially bloody public incident and has moved to SF to find herself. But of course her reputation has followed her and her only friends are her human business partners, her amulet supplier and her potion-maker. But over the course of the book she decides to stop being a recluse and meets everyone she’s been avoiding. It’s charming, but also surprisingly easy.
Her new romance is also good for this genre. He’s super-rich, handsome, expert at her obscure form of judo (but she’s better), and is sort of a jerk who won’t stop crudely hitting on her. But … he’s a normie, not part of the magic world. That’s a problem since he won’t stop trying to research his ancestral magic sword. He’s out of the picture about half-way through, put into the hospital after seeing a mgical secret magic battle. After the climax he’s released but has partial amnesia. On the last page they’re seeing each other “as friends”. Her studly ex-BF is also back in town now dating a powerful local woman who Emiko likes. That’s an acceptable amount of low-key ill-fated romance.
We don’t get any casual sexism. It actually goes the other way where anyone tough who matters is a woman: Emiko’s mom is the world’s most epic magical assassin (her dad stays home running the business), the leader of the friendly clan is an ultra-competent warrior woman (her brother is an inexperienced bumbler), and the bad guy is a man can’t even fight — he uses Mind Control. And of course, Emiko’s reputation as a heartless killer precedes her. No one calls her little missy. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but if you’re going to write an underdog female character, for adults who are very familiar with “can I talk to your husband or father?” nonsense, why would you give that up to make the world more boring and unrealistic?
She’s not a detective. She owns a small business locating and appraising artifacts with two human partners. That’s like detecting, maybe? But we don’t see her doing it, and she’s rich anyway, and the main plot is her being chosen to save the city. Basically, the hero’s small band of friends isn’t in this book.
On to the plot. Naturally it’s driven by her two-day-deadline. It has some twists and turns, but a big amount is her just knowing where the bad guys will be, going there, kicking ass, then they barely get away. How she deals with the demon-ghosts sums up the weaknesses: only Shaolin-blessed swords can hurt demon-ghosts, but she figures a Shaolin monk might have some other advice if he’ll even meet with her. It turns out the monk has seen how much good she’s done while in SF, and likes her, and loans her a blessed sword. It’s touching as we realize she’s her worst critic. But she solved her problem by getting a bigger sword. That’s a Dungeons&Dragons plot.
It’s common in this genre for regular folks to have heard that our heroine can help with magical problems, as if she’s some sort of protector. This book cranks that to eleven, creating a formal magical position “Protector of the City”, awarded by the semi-sentient city itself. That could be interesting, but here it comes with epic magical powers, fame, respect, and a parade. Emiko is now into comic-book levels of epicness. And as a nit-pick, the powers include earthquakes and roots bursting from the ground. Those are nature powers. Shouldn’t city powers use concrete and buildings and so on?
This book isn’t bad. I might even read the next one to see how things turn out, because there are some fun loose ends. The woman who runs the best restaurant in town still hates her and won’t sell her pork rolls. Emiko is going to stay friends with a young girl from the bad-guy clan — another ninja-assassin in training. Her younger brother has his traumatic Royal Rumble school graduation ceremony coming up. Her two business partners are starting to get curious about her past. Will she explain magic to her new possible boyfriend? All things which I’m sure will barely be touched as she fights a giant squid or something in book two.