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Kelley Armstrong – Darkest Powers

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These days, there are a growing number of quality paranormal/urban fantasy writers catering to both the adult and young adult markets.

One of the most prolific and popular is Kelley Armstrong.

After a dozen books in her “Women of the Otherworld” series, Armstrong released The Summoning in 2008, the first in her “Darkest Powers” young adult series. The Awakening followed in 2009, and last month (April 2010) The Reckoning hit the shelves.

The series centres on a group of teenagers who discover they not only have supernatural powers, but that they’ve been genetically engineered.

Without giving too much away, The Summoning provides the set up, The Awakening further develops the characters and the threats they face, and The Reckoning is the big showdown.

The series is definitely big on action, with serious character development kicking in he third book. In fact, The Reckoning is the pay-off for series for fans, on many levels.

The best scenes involve increasingly self-reliant necromancer Chloe (the narrator) and ill-tempered werewolf Derek. Their erratic relationship effectively drives the third book, even more so than the plot developments.

Armstrong is clearly aware how easily a story like this could fall into clichéd territory, and provides a nice variety of twists and inconvenient moments for her characters to avoid that fate.

She also ups the tension in The Reckoning, with more blood, ghosts and zombies than the previous two books combined.



While the third book provides closure on a number of fronts, it definitely leaves plenty of room for future stories.

The “Darkest Powers” series is aimed squarely at teen readers looking for an action-packed paranormal read. I’ve got two novels from the “Otherworld” series waiting on my shelf, and I’m keen to have a read and see how Armstrong delivers her stories when writing for a more adult audience.


Beautiful Creatures – Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

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Beautiful Creatures is another of those books I’ve been hearing about for a while, and I finally decided to grab it from the library last week.

Written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, it’s a love story in which supernatural powers threaten to tear apart young lovers – but the curse at the heart of this tale has nothing to do with the undead or changelings.

Set in the fictitious Deep Southern town of Gatlin, the story is told through the eyes of Ethan Wate, whose family can trace its history back before the Civil War.

Ethan is desperate to break free from the small town – and its small town mentality. He sees his chance when strange and beautiful Lena arrives. Already linked through disturbing dreams, the two are drawn to each other despite the disapproval of pretty much the entire town.

Lena is counting down to her sixteenth birthday, when her fate will be decided, thanks to a curse unleashed by an ancestor in the midst the Civil War.

Ethan soon discovers Lena has powers she can barely control, and as he learns more about her family history – and her possible fate – he realises there’s also much more to his home town than meets the eye.

In a nutshell, Beautiful Creatures is a classic Deep Southern gothic tale with a paranormal twist.

Garcia and Stohl cleverly weave together the murky history of the Civil War with a parallel history of a dark and mystical founding family now shunned by the Confederate descendents.

While the story at times feels a little drawn out, especially in the second half of the book, the plot strands all come together well at the end and make the journey worthwhile.

The countdown to Lena’s birthday helps build tension, and there are a couple of clever twists when the inevitable showdown occurs (it would give away too much to explain who’s involved in that final confrontation – so I won’t).

The history of the Confederacy, and the way in which the Civil War is often selectively remembered in the South, is critical to the mood and tension in Beautiful Creatures.

Garcia at least, has Southern roots and “still makes her biscuits by hand and her pies from scratch”. She also has relatives in the Daughters of the American Revolution, but has managed to avoid participating in a Civil War Reenactment herself. Ethan’s attitude to the Civil War (or, as often called in the South, the War Between the States), is probably a reasonable of Garcia’s.

Both authors’ love of history and literature comes through clearly, adding texture to an already nicely layered story.

My only quibbles are relatively minor: the bitchy teen Southern belles who rule Gatlin High often come off as one dimensional and Ethan – while a likable narrator – is remarkably sensitive for a hormonally charged sixteen-year-old boy. But hey, maybe there is still such a thing as a Southern gentleman?

Beautiful Creatures ends on a satisfying note, but still leaves some big questions unanswered – ensuring plenty of interest in the next instalment, Beautiful Darkness (due out in October).

Are pixies the new bloodsuckers?

We’ve had vampires, werewolves and fallen angels … now it could be time for pixies to be the next big thing in paranormal fiction.

And we’re not talking cute and perky pixies, but nasty soul-sucking, blood craving pixies, who may sprinkle gold dust but have murderous intentions.

At least that’s the case in Need, the first in a new series of novels by Carrie Jones.

A quick overview of the plot:
Zara, still mourning the death of her stepfather, is sent to stay with her feisty grandmother in a chilly remote area of Maine. She’s roused from her grief by the realization a stranger is stalking her, calling to her from the forest and leaving behind a trail of gold dust. It’s soon pretty obvious something isn’t right in her grandmother’s town, and that some of its inhabitants may be much more than they seem.

Even if my local bookseller hadn’t recommended this novel, the marketing pitch alone would have drawn me in: “If you grabbed Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer and asked them to co-author a book, they would absolutely come up with something really close to Need”.

It’s not a bad way to describe the page-turner, which is equal parts thriller and romance. Need has plenty of familiar elements: a cold isolated town, a hot but moody guy who may or may not be dangerous, an unknown threat lurking in the dark forest, and latent family secrets.

But Jones injects fresh life into the genre with her lively, intelligent and self-effacing narrative character, who has more than few quirks.

For a start, Zara’s a walking encyclopedia of phobias; she doesn’t have them, just happens to know what a lot of bizarre fears are called, like nelophobia (fear of glass) or couplogagophobia (fear of being a third wheel – I have no idea if these are real or not…).

Zara’s lived by the adage if you can name fear you can control it, but of course, nothing is ever that simple.

She also has a strong social conscience, spending her spare time working on Amnesty International Urgent Action papers, and her awareness of the suffering of others around the world regularly puts her own situation into perspective (a nice touch in a YA novel – not too much self indulgence here).

Still, Zara does have a few things to worry about. Aside from her own stalker issues, teenage boys are going missing, and it seems this isn’t the first time in the town’s history it’s happened.

Jones has created a dark mythology around the pixies, and it’s not giving too much away to say there are other supernatural creatures in Zara’s world.

Zara is probably one of the most likable and multi-dimensional narrative characters I’ve come across in YA paranormal fiction in a while. Her wry sense of humour regularly breaks through her cloud of grief, as do her hormones.

My only minor quibble is that she seems, at times, to miss the obvious – especially for someone with her apparent attention to detail – but then, I guess it’s really not normal to assume murderous pixies and other mythical creatures are actually real…

I did like the occasional references through the story to Stephen King, who, of course established Maine as the capital of weird through his early horror catalogue.

I don’t know if Need is the start of a new trend or a quirky stand-alone series about freaky pixies, but either way it hooked me early and I enjoyed the journey.

(The second book in the series, Captivate, is already available in the US, but won’t be out here in Australia for a few more months.)

Something to sink your teeth into

Originally posted on Great stories


4 September 2008

You don’t have to be a fan of horror to know that stories about vampires are ripe with metaphors.

Lately, and quite inadvertently, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about vampires – and what they represent metaphorically – thanks to my reading material.

First, I finally bit the bullet (or the jugular, as it may be) and started reading Stephenie Meyer’s mega-selling vampire series, starting with Twilight. I’d been putting this off for a while (as a Josh Whedon fan, I was concerned about stereotyping myself as a fan of all things vampiric).

After I’d read the first two Meyer books, a novel I’d on order from the library became available, The Opposite of Life by Australian author Narelle M. Harris. It was about – you guessed it – vampires.

It was an interesting exercise reading two different stories about vampires back to back, and analysing how the authors tackled the mythology and metaphorical aspects of their tales.

While Joss Whedon used vampires, demons and other “big bads” in his Buffy stories as metaphors for real-life monsters and personal battles, Meyer and Harris take different tacks – along the way also providing refreshingly different takes on vampire mythology.

What prompted me to finally pick up Twilight was an article that revealed Meyer was a practicing Mormon and that – the first book at least – contained no sex and barely any violence. But what really piqued my curiosity was the description of the story as a metaphor for sexual restraint.

At the core of the four-book series is a romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll her if he loses control in her proximity.

And so, their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. The first book captures this tension and conflict remarkably well – to the point of becoming addictive. The second and third books (I’m halfway through the latter) focus more on the mythology Meyer is building, along with Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire so they can be together forever. (I’ll save my critique on the series until I’ve finished the fourth book.)

The Opposite of Life

Harris, on the other hand, takes a more poignant approach in a tale that’s also fresh, witty and – most importantly – original.

Her vampires – who stalk the streets of Melbourne – don’t need human blood to feed their thirst; they need it to “feel” anything.

In this story, wanting to become a vampire is about avoidance. Not avoiding death, but avoiding life and all its pain, which is a palatable option for narrative character Lissa. Too many people in Lissa’s life have died – including some unfortunate souls in Melbourne’s coolest gothic hang-outs – so when she befriends a remarkable unsexy vampire, she seriously considers becoming one herself to avoid any more pain.

Despite the bleak undertones, The Opposite of Life is an easy read and one I really enjoyed. It’s apparently the first of a series featuring Lissa and her forays into the world of vampires (Melbourne’s real underworld), and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. Harris’ style is somewhere between chicklit and goth horror. And it works.

In both stories, the narrative characters have a choice to make about eternity. One is driven by love and desire, the other (at least in Harris’ first offering) is driven by sadness and grief – ultimately tempered by revelation.

I, for one, am enjoying seeing a classic mythology being given new treatment in hybrid genres. But I think once I’ve finished Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, I’ll take a break from the creatures of the night for a bit.

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